Skip to main content

With few new COVID-19 cases in region, some residents say boundary reopenings are overdue

A barricade erected on the single-lane bridge that connects New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is seen amidst farm fields in Fort Lawrence, N.S. on June 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese

The boundary between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had always been as free-flowing as the brackish waters of the Tidnish River. That all changed with COVID-19.

In March, armed conservation officers appeared on the rural road that links the two provinces at Tidnish Bridge, near the Northumberland Strait, as travel between all four Atlantic provinces was restricted in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Gravel roads along the once-invisible Nova Scotia-New Brunswick boundary were barricaded, and traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway slowed to a trickle.

“I’ve crossed that border a million times in my life. It’s crazy to see it like this,” said Jeff Jewett, an oil worker who grew up on the Nova Scotia side.

On Friday, Atlantic Canadians will celebrate the arrival of an “Atlantic Bubble,” which will allow residents to travel between the four eastern provinces without restrictions for the first time in more than three months. They hope it’s a step toward normality after dealing with boundary closings they say have hurt businesses, separated families, delayed medical tests and imposed arbitrary rules for who gets in and who’s kept out.

A New Brunswick conservation officer stops a vehicle at a provincial border checkpoint in Tidnish Bridge, N.S. in June. Provincial borders in Atlantic Canada have effectively remained closed due to COVID-19 restrictions but are set to reopen to interprovincial travel on July 3.Darren Calabrese

Atlantic Canada, as a region, has had fewer than 1,520 confirmed cases since the outbreak began – a small fraction of the number in Ontario or Quebec. More than 70 per cent of those were in Nova Scotia, which until this week, when three new cases were confirmed in the province, hadn’t had a new infection in three weeks.

Mr. Jewett, who lives in a county that hasn’t had a single case of COVID-19, is among those who found novel ways to get around the provincial boundary restrictions: He used his speedboat to shuttle people up the Tidnish River into New Brunswick, including his father for a dentist appointment and a local woman going to a funeral.

With few new cases in the region since May, pressure had been mounting on the Atlantic premiers to get people moving again. In New Brunswick, 70 per cent of small businesses have reopened, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business – fuelling calls to let out-of-province shoppers return.

“I’ve got customers who still have their winter tires on because they haven’t been able to cross the border,” said Mike Allen, who owns four car dealerships in Amherst, N.S., a town of around 9,500 people on the border with New Brunswick.

Josh Dorn, an automotive service technician, works on a vehicle after a three-month layoff at Amherst Chrysler in Amherst, N.S. The vehicle dealership located near the border of New Brunswick, has experienced a significant drop in business since the provincial border was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

More than 40 per cent of his clients live on the other side of the boundary, he said. And while essential workers were allowed to cross between the provinces, rules that required other people to self-isolate for two weeks if they crossed kept most traffic away.

For an area where families and jobs are often interprovincial, the restrictions were becoming increasingly unpopular, he said.

Mr. Allen said he had to lay off more than 80 per cent off his staff when the pandemic first hit because of the boundary closings and public health recommendations.

While in other parts of Canada public health concerns may still be the priority, along the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia boundary, people are more worried about the economy, he said.

Signage directing traffic between Atlantic provinces is seen on the Trans-Canada Highway in Fort Lawrence, N.S.Darren Calabrese

“We’ve got employees and families who live on either side, and they can’t see each other. So it’s become more of a mental-health and an economic crisis,” Mr. Allen said.

“I think the government measures have gone way too far, been way too harsh and have done far more damage than good. In some cases, irreparable damage was done.”

The boundary restrictions also meant some people have gone three months without normal access to diagnostic tests such as MRIs, pain clinics and specialist appointments. Nova Scotia patients with a new cancer diagnosis have also been refused appointments by the hospital in Moncton, according to Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin.

Others say crossing the boundary, even for approved work reasons, wasn’t always guaranteed – causing problems for companies and workers like.

Jeff Jewett drives his boat up the Tidnish River in Tidnish Bridge, N.S., where the provincial border of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia runs down the middle.Darren Calabrese

“There were people who were trying to go through for work, and they were denied,” said Paul Porter, a councillor with the Municipality of Cumberland. “Some people were not able to get through at all, and I don’t understand that.”

Long lineups are expected at provincial boundary crossings around the region Friday. While Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador will require a self-declaration form confirming people haven’t travelled and have no symptoms before they are permitted to enter, adults entering Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will need to show only a proof of residency.

Not everyone is thrilled to see the provincial boundaries reopen, however. In Newfoundland and PEI, where there have been 261 and 27 COVID-19 cases, respectively, some people are anxious about the arrival of visitors – worried they may not have followed self-isolation guidelines if they’ve travelled elsewhere recently.

“If everybody did what they were supposed to do, maybe this wouldn’t have been as bad as it was,” said Randy Ahearn, a town councillor in Borden-Carleton, PEI. “There’s nothing wrong with tourists, but I’d say support for this is probably split, 50-50. Some are saying, let’s keep it shut and do the best we can.”

From Tidnish Bridge, N.S., bridge-jumpers leap into the Tidnish River where the provincial border of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia runs down the middle. Although the men were effectively jumping interprovincially, borders between Atlantic Canadian provinces have remained closed to non-essential travellers due to COVID-19 restrictions.Darren Calabrese

Tourism operators in Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, say they are ready to see travellers return. They hope loosening travel restrictions within the region will help some businesses survive until Canadians from other parts of the country are allowed in.

“I think it’s a great first step to help communities understand that once we let people in, it’s not going to be the end of the world,” said Steve Denty of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador, an industry group.

“For the last three or four months, to have essentially no revenue coming in, it’s been incredibly challenging for these businesses. I think we’ve done a good job of flattening the curve. I think now is the time to switch from ‘We’re not travelling’ to ‘How do we travel safely?‘ ”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles