Jarring scenes are springing up along Canada’s provincial boundaries and federal borders in response to the COVID-19 outbreak – including police checkpoints to stop travellers on the highway, and silent international crossings where lineups have suddenly vanished.
On Monday morning, the RCMP began stopping vehicles going from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, questioning drivers and ordering them into self-isolation under the terms of a state of emergency the province declared on Sunday. The government made exceptions for commercial trucks, medical staff and other essential services, while some out-of-province drivers opted to turn back.
It is believed to be the first time travel across the provincial boundary has been restricted since before Confederation. And it has thrown a barrier between the towns of Amherst, N.S., and Sackville, N.B., where people commonly commute back and forth for work, to visit family or shop.
“It’s a psychological blow to see that,” Sackville Mayor John Higham said. “This has really become very real for a lot of people very quickly. ... There’s a lot of close ties between both communities.”
Checkpoints have started at other provincial boundaries, too. Vehicles travelling from Alberta, B.C. or Yukon into the Northwest Territories, which reported its first COVID-19 case on Saturday, are also being stopped on the highway and turned back, with exceptions. P.E.I. has taken similar measures at its borders.
Similar scenes could become common across Canada if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heeds calls to use the Emergencies Act, which would give the federal government power to close interprovincial borders. The country’s premiers were expected to raise the issue in a conference call with Mr. Trudeau on Monday night.
The closing of Canada’s border with the United States to all non-essential traffic, meanwhile, has upended border towns. In St. Stephen, N.B., where life and commerce have always been closely linked with Calais, Maine, people are anxious about what it will mean for the both economies.
“We’re one half of the circle and they’re the other,” St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said. “To me, we’re one large town, and now we’re split in half.”
People cross the border for jobs, to pick up groceries or even pizza. Residents of Calais regularly shop in St. Stephen, taking advantage of the stronger U.S. dollar. Canadians get out their passports to go to the State Cinemas, the area’s only movie theatre. Many families have relatives on both sides.
St. Stephen’s downtown has been reduced to a ghost town since the border was shut at midnight Friday. Cross-border traffic is a big reason for the town’s economic strength in recent years, the mayor said, and he’s losing sleep worrying about a prolonged closing.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the border restrictions will be in place for 30 days, but that could be extended. Mr. MacEachern hopes the border reopens in time for the tourism season, but worries travellers may stay away long after that.
Firefighting services in St. Stephen and Calais have a mutual aid agreement that allows crews and equipment to cross quickly to fight fires. Now, volunteer firefighters can’t cross the border, and worry they will need to go into quarantine if they do.
But the biggest concern in St. Stephen may be among businesses that rely on U.S. shoppers. Less than a decade ago, the town had so many empty storefronts it painted murals on the windows of people shopping.
“I don’t want to go back to that,” Mr. MacEachern said. “As a border community, we rely on that traffic.”
The shutdown is causing panic in Campobello Island, N.B. The island is accessible year-round to the rest of Canada only by bridge through the United States, and residents say they feel trapped.
“I’m really scared, and my wife is scared, too,” Ulysse Robichaud said.
The island has no gas station, and its only grocery store is closing at the end of the month due to cost of carrying goods over an international border. Residents say they will have to travel to the United States for their basic needs. But while islanders will be allowed into Maine, Mr. Robichaud and others say they wouldn’t feel safe.
“I don’t want to travel into the U.S. right now," Mr. Robichaud said. "I don’t want to have to get sick just to go get some food, or bring this disease back to my island.”
The outbreak has renewed calls for a year-round ferry to connect Campobello to the rest of Canada. If Canadians are being told to stay home, it doesn’t make sense to tell islanders it’s okay to go the United States, he said.
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