Infectious-disease experts say a push by a new Canadian tourism lobby group to loosen travel restrictions and lift quarantine requirements poses a serious risk and could trigger a wave of new COVID-19 infections in the country.
Medical experts say reopening borders and allowing more travel, especially in and out of the country, could jeopardize Canada’s progress in flattening the COVID-19 curve. They point to the fact that COVID-19 cases are surging in many countries around the world, including the U.S., which recorded the highest single-day total for new infections, at more than 36,000, on Wednesday.
“[Travel] is the one segment of the economy that probably has the greatest potential to derail our ability to stay out of lockdown,” said Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, general internist and clinical epidemiologist at Toronto’s University Health Network.
Mounting concern over the risks of increased travel comes as more than 130 airlines, airports, hotels, chambers of commerce and tourism companies in Canada have joined forces to urge the federal and provincial governments to ease travel restrictions.
The new group, the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, is asking governments to “streamline and clarify rules around travel in order to ensure safe, accessible and timely travel for Canadians this summer,” according to a press release. The group includes Air Canada, WestJet, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.
“We need to have a dialogue about how we can do this, making sure that people are going to stay safe,” said Susie Grynol, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of Canada and a member of the new group.
The group wrote an open letter earlier this month to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all premiers calling for the mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering Canada to be lifted and to remove restrictions against foreign visitors. Such measures are “no longer necessary” and are “out of step with other countries across the globe,” the letter stated, pointing to countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Australia, which are adopting strategies that allow for travel from some countries where rates of infection are minimal.
The group is also advocating for the removal of any restrictions on travel within the country, writing in the letter that “Canadians should be free to travel across Canada.”
In an appearance at the House of Commons standing committee on health this week, airline representatives said the current rules are too onerous, highlighting measures such as mandatory quarantines.
“The 14-day quarantine is a challenging component of the industry restart,” said Jared Mikoch-Gerke, manager of aviation security at WestJet Airlines Ltd.
He said the airline is concerned about a second wave of infections hitting Canada, but that a “calculated strategy” could help restart travel.
However COVID-19 cases are surging in several countries around the world, which experts cite as a serious concern. On Sunday, more than 183,000 new cases were recorded worldwide, the largest one-day increase since the pandemic began. Brazil, the U.S. and India had the highest number of cases.
The federal government has an official advisory in place warning Canadians against any non-essential travel outside the country. People who leave the country could face challenges returning home, may not be able to get travel insurance and may have limited access to consular services, according to the government.
Within Canada, some provinces are recommending against travel to and from other provinces, while others have implemented restrictions and quarantines for non-residents. On Wednesday, the Atlantic provinces said they will create a “travel bubble” as of July 3 that will allow residents to travel freely between them all.
Around the world, countries are adopting their own approaches to travel. The European Union is expected to loosen border restrictions next week, which would allow travellers from countries that have controlled the spread of COVID-19 to travel there. But New Zealand, which has largely contained the virus, made its border and quarantine restrictions even stronger after three new travel-related cases of the disease were reported in the country last week.
Infection-control experts say travel continues to pose a serious risk for virus transmission in Canada, with international travel posing the greatest danger.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital, said travel within local regions or even between provinces is a much safer bet than it was a few weeks ago. But he said it’s “a little premature” to open the door to more international travel.
“The world is looking pretty ugly right now outside of Canadian borders,” Dr. Bogoch said. “This pandemic is getting worse, not better.”
Michael Gardam, an infection prevention and control expert and chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital, said there is “no way” he would get on a plane any time soon because the threat is still too great, particularly when thinking about travelling to countries such as the U.S.
He and other experts say it’s not simply about the possible transmission of COVID-19 on a plane, but the risks that come with travel, such as venturing out and meeting new people.
“When people travel, they don’t travel to stay indoors with their close travel companion at their arrival destination,” Dr. Lapointe-Shaw said. “Travel does have an outsized effect on the ability of outbreaks to grow quickly.”
They also point out that countries that seem safe one day could find themselves in the midst of new pockets of infection the next.
So far, the Prime Minister is resisting calls to lift travel restrictions. Doing so too soon “would lead to a resurgence that might well force us to go back into lockdown,” Mr. Trudeau said earlier this week.
The Canada-U.S. border will remain closed to non-essential traffic until July 21, a deadline that many infectious-disease experts say they hope will be extended.
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