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Minister of Health Patty Hadju speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Canadians returning home from outside the country during the ongoing COVID19 pandemic with symptoms of the disease will no longer be able to take taxis, ride-sharing cars or public transit home if they don’t have their own transportation, but rather must use transit arranged by the federal government, says the Health Minister.

Patty Hadju announced the plan on Wednesday, saying it will apply to travellers who don’t have private transportation options, but exact details are being worked out as the order, under the federal Quarantine Act, takes effect midnight Wednesday night.

Asked if travellers will be taken on their way by bus or Uber ride-sharing, Ms. Hadju said, “There will be a variety of different methods but likely buses that will be able to transport people. Again it will be depending on the situation and my officials are working through those details with [Canada Border Services Agency] right now.”

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She also said plans are in the works to provide hotels for travellers who need them.

Returning Canadians will also be told to quarantine themselves for 14 days; “significant penalties” will be imposed if people violate those orders.

Andrew Scheer, the federal Conservative leader, said on CBC’s Power & Politics that many travellers won’t know what to do when they land in Canada because there is no clear plan now. “We’re a little frustrated that there don’t seem to be the details.”

A spokesperson for Canada’s airports was taken aback at the plan.

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Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, which represents 100 Canadian airports, said airports are working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency on the “evolving situation.”

“I learned of Minister Hajdu’s comments at the same time as other Canadians, and so I am not aware of what conversations or preparation there may have been with individual airports on this latest direction," he said in a statement.

The plan is a new blow to Canada’s taxi industry, reeling from the ongoing pandemic crisis given, among other issues, the challenge of social distancing in most vehicles.

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Leaders in the industry said the move will ensure the safety of drivers, but that also noted that the taxi business is in a dire state.

In Ottawa, Marc Andre Way, president of the Canadian Taxi Association, said the taxi industry, across Canada, has lost 80 to 85 per cent of business during the pandemic, and is struggling to survive.

Without help from the federal government and insurance companies, a number of operators will be forced to close permanently, he said in a statement. “Doing nothing for the taxi industry would be catastrophic,” he said.

In Ontario, John Niessen, a driver of an airport shuttle van to Toronto’s Pearson Airport, said his company is closing down on Friday, which he said may have been inevitable given the times.

“When you have a full van, you have a travelling incubator,” the 57-year-old retired teacher said, referring to fruitless efforts to keep social distance in the vehicle. “It’s COVID roulette.”

One North Vancouver company, Sunshine Cabs, will suspend operations on Saturday, forcing the layoff of about 100 drivers and 17 staff, until things improve. “It is difficult to maintain proper social distancing of 2 metres, for the safety of both our valued customers and taxi operators,” management said in a statement.

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Carolyn Bauer, general manager for Yellow Cab in Vancouver, said only about one-third of the company’s 327 cars are now on the road given the state of business. Her company and others, she said, have lost drivers who are reluctant to drive given the pandemic.

Still, she said customers, including caregivers, need the taxi option for getting around.

Drivers, she said, are wiping down their seats after each trip, wearing gloves, and covering payment machines with saran wrap after each use if they don’t have a tap option. “There is a huge shortage of masks so I am unable to supply them to the drivers,” she said.

Patrick Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia with an expertise in mass transit, said, in the long term, that he sees the ride-hailing and taxi industry “roaring back” eventually at the expense of transit when the pandemic wanes.

“With the current anxiety around what we touch, I fear transit will be stigmatized for a long time, perhaps for years. Ride hailing and taxis should benefit from this fear. At least there you are only sharing with one other person, perhaps certified as virus-free by then,” he said in an email exchange.

Editor’s note: (March 27, 2020): An earlier version of this article said Canadians arriving home from abroad cannot take taxis or ride sharing services. Although the minister initially said the directive applied to all travelers, the ministry later said it was to those who were symptomatic only.
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