Travellers in British Columbia and Alberta are heeding warnings to cancel weekend trips to their cabins or venture across the provincial boundary, traffic data from both provinces show, after tourist-dependent towns urged outsiders to stay away to keep COVID-19 from spreading into their communities.
Recreational hot spots along the provincial boundary, which would normally be buzzing with tourists enjoying the mild spring weather, have been pleading with travellers to stay home, in part to prevent them from overwhelming relatively limited health care resources. Public-health officials have told people to avoid all essential travel, a regional government requested that the provincial boundary be closed, and the health ministers from both provinces have asked their residents to avoid interprovincial travel.
Alberta Transportation data show that, as of April 5, traffic across the B.C.-Alberta boundary dropped by 35 per cent since physical-distancing recommendations were introduced in March.
Neither B.C. nor Alberta have data for the Easter long weekend, but local governments reported steep declines in travel. There were exceptions, with the mayor of Osoyoos, B.C., saying that while it had been quiet for weeks, Easter was busy.
In Banff, Alta., about 3,000 vehicles travelled into town during the long weekend and only 6 per cent of them identified as visitors; the rest were residents, workers providing essential services, or people stopping for supplies before continuing on the Trans-Canada Highway. That’s a considerable decline from last year, when 40,000 vehicles drove into town on the four-day Easter weekend.
The town, which has been urging tourists to stay away even as the pandemic significantly damages the local economy, set up checkstops on the long weekend to discourage day visitors and non-essential travel. The national park is also closed.
Earlier this month, the Regional District of East Kootenay requested that the B.C. government close the boundary with Alberta to non-essential travel. Instead, the province repeated its advice to avoid all non-essential trips and Health Minister Adrian Dix joined his counterpart in Alberta, Tyler Shandro, in a statement specifically targeting the long weekend: “Staying home means no travelling – especially across our borders.”
Data from B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation show there was a 41-per-cent reduction in traffic on Highway 3, which winds through the region, between March 30 and April 5 in comparison to the same week last year.
Rob Gay, chair of the regional district, said it’s been much quieter in the region, including on Easter weekend, and he wants to maintain that trend.
"We’re certainly not letting our foot off the gas. We’re still trying to say avoid all non-essential travel,” Mr. Gay said.
In Invermere, B.C., which is a part of the East Kootenay region, Mayor Al Miller agreed with the regional board’s call to tighten the provincial boundary. Mr. Miller said he saw less traffic than usual moving through the town on the Easter weekend, but more than he had hoped.
“The virus itself doesn’t travel, it’s the people that are travelling that take the virus with them or bring it here,” Mr. Miller said.
Highway 97, which runs through the resort municipality of Osoyoos, had a 74-per-cent reduction in traffic between March 30 and April 5, but Mayor Sue McKortoff said that the Easter weekend wasn’t as quiet.
"We have seen, we think just about everywhere, an increase in travel [on the Easter] weekend,” she said.
“Many people were concerned about ferry traffic going over to Vancouver Island, and cars with bikes and kayaks and that type of thing on. We can’t know for sure, but you sort of assume that people are going on holiday somewhere.”
Ms. McKortoff said that it hasn’t been easy pushing away tourists, on whom the town’s economy depends.
“I have certainly had a lot of pushback from people who think that’s a dreadful thing for me to say, because this is a tourism town, but, you know, we’re all in this pandemic together,” Ms. McKortoff said.
Some residents in Jasper, Alta., are happy there are fewer people coming through their town, said Christine Nadon, the community’s legislative services manager. Ms. Nadon doesn’t see a blockade or checkpoint as a useful option for the town to reduce traffic.
“Our observations on the ground are that there's a very limited amount of people from out of town that are actually circulating through Jasper.”
Golden, B.C., experienced a drastic drop in occupants in commercial accommodations. In March, there was a 46-per-cent decrease from last year.
"Given that the measures put in place weren't implemented until halfway through the month, it shows that there's a pretty direct and quick response to not travelling,” said Andy Brown, a spokesperson for the Town of Golden.
Mr. Brown said Golden wants travellers to return – just not yet.
“We want them to come back into the community and enjoy what we have here and the outdoor activities but not until the comfort level is there and the authorities say now is the time that you’re able to do it," he said.
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