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Alex Copp, manager at Lawrencetown Surf Co., in the shop in Lawrencetown, N.S. on March 16, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Atlantic Canada’s premiers will discuss on Wednesday night a tentative reopening of provincial borders later this spring, fuelling hope for a much-anticipated return of an “Atlantic bubble” that allowed East Coast businesses to salvage a tourism season in 2020.

But in the region’s $5-billion hospitality sector, where the summer months can make or break a season, the bigger question is when travellers from other parts of the country might be allowed in without restrictions. As the number of COVID-19 vaccinations grows across the country, a lot of people hoping to visit Atlantic Canada are left waiting and wondering.

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At the Lawrencetown Surf Co. outside Halifax, where out-of-province visitors are normally a big part of their surf school’s business, manager Alex Copp is hopeful to see more travellers this summer.

“It would be huge for us if they lift the bubble and open up the province to outsiders,” he said. “This year, we’re really hoping they can open things up. We’re ready if we get that influx. It just comes down to an employment strategy, because we’d need to have a lot more instructors.”

Last year, locals on staycations helped the shop’s East Coast Surf School have a strong year – but he’s not expecting they can keep those numbers up for a second year in a row, if borders remain closed.

A man stands on the bluff in Lawrencetown, N.S. on March 16, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

One of Atlantic Canada’s most prominent epidemiologists says it’s too early to know how the vaccine rollout may evolve, and how that will affect the risk of allowing more visitors inside the region. She suggests even fully vaccinated travellers from Ontario or Quebec hoping to visit this summer should still plan on a 14-day quarantine period when they arrive.

“We’ve seen what happens when people build policy based on what they’d like versus what evidence tells them. I’m all for evidence-based decisions,” said Susan Kirkland, chief of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“We may get to the point where we can open up the provinces to the rest of Canada, but it has to be done in a very, very controlled way.”

After closing their borders in the early days of the pandemic last spring, the four Eastern provinces created an Atlantic bubble in July that allowed its residents to travel freely without the need to self-isolate. That agreement fell apart in November as cases began climbing again in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The region’s premiers are under enormous pressure to reopen those borders again to throw a lifeline to their tourism and hospitality industries. The pandemic drained about $3-billion in revenue from those sectors, according to the Atlantic Canada Chamber of Commerce. Some hotels said bookings were down 90 per cent.

A person walks through the lobby of the Cambridge Suites Hotel in Halifax on March 16, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Complicating the decision for the premiers are new concerns over coronavirus variants, which caused the rapid outbreak that upended the Newfoundland and Labrador election last month. But Dr. Kirkland said the bigger factor is how quickly the provinces are able to vaccinate their citizens – pointing out that none has announced any plans yet to vaccinate children under 16.

The Eastern provinces have accelerated their plans for vaccinating adults, and say most residents should be able to get their first dose by the end of June. Prince Edward Island is already offering the vaccine to young people between the ages of 18 and 29 who work in gas stations and grocery stores, while Nova Scotia is using pharmacies to immunize as many people as they can in the shortest time possible.

In seaside tourist towns such as Shediac, N.B., where thousands normally flock in the summer for the annual lobster festival and soft sand of Parlee Beach, there’s hope visitors from other parts of Canada can soon return, provided it’s safe for them to travel.

“Can it happen this summer? The virus will determine that,” Shediac Mayor Roger Caissie said. “Nobody expects it to be like it was in 2019 or 2018, but at least we see there’s hope.”

Diners eat in a shelter meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 at a restaurant on the waterfront in Halifax on March 16, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A full season of the Atlantic bubble in 2021 would help the town’s tourism businesses, he said. But he suspects it will be 2022 before Shediac can expect the caravan of tour buses and out-of-province cars that used to crowd its main street.

Most businesses want regional borders reopened, said Sheri Somerville, chief executive officer of the Atlantic Canada Chamber of Commerce. They also need clarity as soon as possible from the provinces so they can better plan for the summer months, she said. Waiting again until midsummer would be “devastating,” she said.

As for reopening to the rest of the country, some are taking a wait-and-see approach for 2021, she said.

“I think it’s still early,” Ms. Somerville said. “Right now, they’re focused on the Atlantic bubble. … I think if our cases remain low, and vaccines are in place, then people would be looking to have those borders opened.”

Dr. Kirkland, meanwhile, cautioned against a rapid reopening in the interest of boosting the economy. There’s lots of evidence vaccinated people can still transmit COVID-19, she said, and “it’s not a good idea” to consider allowing people with just a single dose of the vaccine to travel freely without quarantining.

A closed patio at a restaurant on the waterfront in Halifax on March 16, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Atlantic Canada has been able to limit infections during the pandemic by adopting tough public-health measures, and adjusting as needed, she said. Changing that approach now seems unnecessarily risky, she said.

“We’ve managed to stay in control this long and avoided a lot of deaths that a lot of other provinces have seen. It would be devastating at the end of this, when the end is in sight, to suddenly see high death rates,” Dr. Kirkland said.

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