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Concerns around travel have been growing as new COVID-19 cases fuelled by variants have repeatedly delayed plans to resume the Atlantic travel bubble.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Tough travel restrictions have helped Atlantic Canada escape the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year. But recent outbreaks show how difficult they can be to enforce, even as new restrictions meant to halt the third wave have been met with some pushback.

This week, New Brunswick stopped allowing travellers to self-isolate in private homes because too many people were breaking their quarantine orders. The province now requires all non-essential travellers to self-isolate for at least a week in a designated hotel, at their own expense – a controversial order that has been slammed by opposition politicians and people trying to move to the region.

Nova Scotia is in the middle of a provincewide shutdown as it tries to fight off a third wave that its chief medical officer says was started by travellers who failed to quarantine for the required 14 days. New statistics suggest there have been rampant violations of those self-isolation orders – and this latest outbreak, with 589 active cases on Friday, shows how difficult it has been to force people to follow some of the toughest public-health rules in the country.

Of the 978 tickets issued by police in Nova Scotia for violations of the Health Protection Act and Emergency Management Act in the past year, it’s estimated roughly a quarter are for people accused of breaking the rules around self-isolation, according to data from the RCMP and other services.

Robert Strang, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said quarantine rules that are supposed to prevent the virus from spreading to the larger population aren’t foolproof, and enforcement can only go so far. But he said it’s not fair to blame travellers alone for this latest outbreak, which has closed schools and businesses and restricted travel even within the province.

“Ultimately, we know the virus came in here from travellers,” Dr. Strang said. “But I don’t want to focus just on those individuals, because we also know Nova Scotians here made choices to socialize and get together with those travellers.”

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Concerns around travel have been growing as new COVID-19 cases fuelled by variants have repeatedly delayed plans to resume the Atlantic travel bubble. That agreement, which would allow residents of the four provinces in the region to cross provincial boundaries without the need to self-isolate, is on indefinite hold until the threat of further outbreaks has been reduced.

All four Atlantic provinces require preapproval for entrance, and have adjusted restrictions throughout the pandemic in response to public-health concerns. Nova Scotia no longer allows non-residents, such as cottage owners, to enter the province after concerns were raised in April that Canadians coming from provinces with higher rates of COVID-19 were not properly self-isolating.

Thousands of travellers continue to arrive each week, however. Nova Scotia had 4,895 people isolating last week after entering from outside the province. Since March, more than 29,000 people have registered their plans to enter Nova Scotia.

In Prince Edward Island, where there are only 11 active cases of COVID-19, seasonal property owners are still allowed in. The province says that since January, 226 seasonal residents have received pretravel approval to come to the island.

PEI Premier Dennis King recently said the province is looking at allowing visitors to skip self-isolation requirements if they can prove they’ve been vaccinated. The provincial government says 146 charges have been laid in relation to public-health violations, but couldn’t say how many of those were for violating quarantine.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, which reported 33 active cases on Friday, virtually all new cases since an outbreak in February that delayed the provincial election have been directly related to travel.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, meanwhile, says fines alone have not been enough of a deterrent for rule-breakers, which is why the quarantine hotels were introduced. His province also increased the maximum penalty for not self-isolating to $24,000, after issuing more than 800 tickets for public-health violations – more than half of which have been fought in court.

Mr. Higgs said he’s heard from a lot of travellers angry about the new hotel rule, but said people violating self-isolation orders have forced the unpopular measure. The new rule has slowed the arrival of travellers into the province, with just 137 people quarantining in hotels as of April 28. The province had 127 actives cases on Friday.

“I know many of you feel that you can go home and isolate properly. Unfortunately, we’ve had numerous cases where that had not been the case – and right now, we just cannot take the chance,” the Premier said, adding he will review the hotel rule each week.

“Right now, a lot of people have worked very hard to keep us safe, so let’s not take any additional risks.”

The new rules have been criticized by people who’ve been in the process of moving to the province, and by parents of university students trying to come home. While the hotel costs vary, a week-long stay can easily run into the thousands of dollars for a family with multiple members.

At the Hilton hotel in Saint John, quarantined travellers pay $120 a night, which includes three meals delivered to their door by the Red Cross. It’s $60 a day for each additional guest. After a week, they can finish their self-isolation period at home.

N.B. People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said the quarantine hotels are a step too far among what he describes as “ever-changing” rules designed to keep people safe.

“We understand the threat new variants of the virus pose to public health and the need to take action to keep COVID-19 cases from spreading in New Brunswick,” he said. “However, the mandatory isolation measures … are not reasonable.”

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