As Atlantic Canada plans to open itself up to visitors again, the move also comes with calls for federal guidance on what domestic travel should look like as more Canadians get vaccinated.
Health Canada recommends against all non-essential travel internationally, but is silent on travel between the provinces. The department says it’s up to each province and territory to set their own rules for entry.
But with millions of Canadians preparing to get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines, and planning summer vacations, there’s a growing need to know what’s considered safe domestic travel. The country has never seen barriers to interprovincial travel like this before, and easing out of those restrictions may require a national road map.
“As spring turns into summer, people are going to be moving around. We need federal guidance on what’s appropriate for travel. We should all be reading from the same playbook,” said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Toronto.
“Someone with one dose from Quebec should really behave the same as someone with one dose from B.C. We really need some standardization on what’s appropriate while we’re in this bizarre interim period.”
Atlantic Canada’s premiers are planning to reinstate a regional travel bubble on April 19, allowing residents to move between their provinces without the need to quarantine. Newfoundland and Labrador’s participation is conditional on its ability to continue to ease its provincial alert-level restrictions, after an outbreak on the Avalon Peninsula last month.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters Wednesday night he’s hopeful the region’s borders could also be opened to the rest of Canada by early July. He added the provinces are looking for federal direction on vaccination cards, which could be used as a requirement of entry – something Ottawa has discussed for international, but not domestic, travel.
There are many questions around how a wider reopening should work. The Eastern premiers acknowledged a lot still needs to be sorted out, and said that opening could come with some restrictions.
“We still need to determine at the national table, sort of, what that looks like,” Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King told the CBC. “How we travel, what is required to travel and what documentation, if any, they will need. Will masking still need to take place? All of these different factors.”
Dr. Bogoch said once the vast majority of adults have been partly vaccinated against COVID-19, public-health concerns can be relaxed. The Atlantic provinces believe they’ll hit that mark by the end of June, if the vaccine supply is reliable.
When that happens, provinces should be able to make an informed decision about easing back on travel restrictions that have greatly hampered the economy and kept families from seeing each other, he said.
“That’s the whole point of vaccines,” Dr. Bogoch said. “We know there’s significant protection from just one dose. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good. We know the vaccine greatly reduces your risk of getting really, really sick.”
Mr. Higgs argued that after 75 per cent to 85 per cent of adults in his province have received one dose of vaccine, the need for travellers to self-isolate upon entry would be reduced, he said. He’s anxious to salvage a summer tourism season, and to allow New Brunswickers to travel, too.
“Once we achieve our herd immunity levels, then I’d say our quarantine requirements would ultimately disappear. When we have a population that is protected, then we obviously have less concerns about travellers who are coming and going,” he said, during a call with reporters.
“The quicker we can vaccinate, the quicker we can open borders and get back to life as normal.”
While Mr. King also said he’d like to open up to the rest of Canada some time this summer, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin was less willing on Thursday to put a timeline on when those travel restrictions could be relaxed.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.
Others have urged caution in the reopening phase, pointing out no provinces have announced any plans yet to vaccinate children. But children are at a significantly lower risk of serious health problems from COVID-19 than adults, Dr. Bogoch said. They’ve accounted for just 1.6 per cent of all hospitalizations, and six of the 22,500 deaths in Canada from the virus.
The Atlantic provinces closed their doors to the rest of Canada as a protective measure last spring. The region has fewer intensive-care beds, more poorly equipped rural hospitals and less capacity to handle severe outbreaks. That strategy helped the East keep infection rates low – but there will come a time soon when the tolerance for COVID-19 risks can be raised, Dr. Bogoch said.
In January, Manitoba also imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement for anyone entering from elsewhere in Canada. The tricky part for provinces now will be deciding when is best to ease up on those travel restrictions.
“At some point, you’ve got to have an off-ramp,” Dr. Bogoch said. “The key is finding that economic, public-health and epidemiologic sweet spot. And it’s a value judgment.”
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