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Protesters block the road during a demonstration on highway 104, in Cumberland County, N.S., on June 23, 2021. Traffic was brought to a standstill Wednesday along the Trans-Canada Highway at Nova Scotia's boundary with New Brunswick as a protest continued over COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Riley Smith/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin’s surprise move to kick New Brunswick out of the Atlantic Bubble travel agreement has deepened political divisions over reopening plans and prompted protesters to shut down the Trans-Canada Highway connecting the two provinces.

The four Atlantic provinces were set to allow residents to travel freely around the region starting on Wednesday, without the need to quarantine – a restoration of the Atlantic bubble that burst last fall as COVID-19 cases rose. On Tuesday afternoon, hours before provincial boundaries were set to reopen, Mr. Rankin announced his province would exclude New Brunswick.

The Nova Scotia Premier said New Brunswick’s decision last week to open the door to partly vaccinated travellers from other parts of Canada exposed his province to undue risk. The outrage was immediate from people on both sides of the provincial boundary who had made plans for reunions after being separated by interprovincial travel restrictions since last November.

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“He’s left thousands of people in the lurch. I was packed and ready to go. This is so devastating,” said Deborah Wiggins of Fredericton, who had hoped to travel to Nova Scotia on Wednesday to visit family, including her brother-in-law, who is dying of cancer.

“They’re not doing this for the people any more. This is about power and grandstanding and two premiers not co-operating.”

Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick reported zero new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. During a briefing the day before, Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said the restrictions for New Brunswick travellers would likely be reassessed next week.

The four Atlantic premiers spoke on Wednesday night, although no resolution was immediately made public. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said his province’s reopening plans were made clear in May, when New Brunswick announced it would ease restrictions on travel once it partly vaccinated 75 per cent of its population and fully vaccinated 20 per cent of people 65 years or older.

“We’ll all be adults in the room,” the Progressive Conservative leader told reporters before the meeting. “I’m confident once they understand what we’re doing ... we can work through all the issues, and get our friends and neighbours back together on both sides of the border.”

For Mr. Rankin, the rookie Liberal Premier eyeing an election in the coming months, it’s become his most challenging political move so far. He called New Brunswick’s decision to go ahead with its reopening plan “regrettable,” and said he had to protect Nova Scotians. His province only recently beat back a third wave that shut down schools and businesses.

“We have to put safety first, and I’m not going to take chances,” he said.

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Hours after the announcement, protesters shut down traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway that links the two provinces, blockading long lines of transport trucks with minivans and sedans parked sideways across the road. RCMP began arresting demonstrators on Wednesday night in a effort to clear highway traffic that had been paralyzed for more than 24 hours.

“This is probably the most unpopular moment in terms of government guidelines since we had our first case of COVID over a year and a half ago,” said J.P. Lewis, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

New Brunswick’s decision to partly reopen to the rest of Canada before its Atlantic counterparts comes as the relationship between the two premiers appears to be at a low point, Prof. Lewis said. Mr. Rankin, who publicly criticized Mr. Higgs last week, said he didn’t speak to the New Brunswick Premier before his decision, and said his calls for a meeting weren’t returned last week.

Prof. Lewis said he wonders if travel restrictions that have kept the premiers from meeting in person have allowed smaller disagreements to grow. Mr. Rankin, a 38-year-old politician trying to position himself as a new, progressive kind of leader, has yet to talk face to face with Mr. Higgs, a 67-year-old former oil executive and fiscal conservative who won a PC majority last September.

“You have to wonder, if the premiers had been able to meet in person, would things be going a lot smoother than this?” Mr. Lewis said. “Residents of both provinces should be concerned that their premiers can’t seem to connect.”

Nova Scotia’s last-minute decision also sparked a strong reaction from the tourism sector. Many New Brunswick residents had booked hotels in Nova Scotia in expectation of easing travel restrictions. The new rules mean anyone travelling from New Brunswick will still have to isolate for up to two weeks and get tested, even if they’re fully vaccinated, while those coming from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have to.

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New Brunswickers are free to travel to Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland without restrictions.

“Premier Rankin’s 11th-hour decision to cut our industry off at its knees on the cusp of an already shrunken summer season is simply unacceptable,” the Hotel Association of Nova Scotia said in a statement. “The goal throughout the pandemic was to flatten the curve and keep Nova Scotians safe. ... The goal should not now be to cripple the economy with the most restrictive border controls in the nation, if not the continent.”

Kevin Wilson, a Halifax-based epidemiologist, argues there’s room for compromise, suggesting Nova Scotia could simply test unvaccinated New Brunswickers at entry points, and give those with two doses the same travel perks enjoyed by other Atlantic Canadians.

Mr. Higgs, who said he had no advance notice from Mr. Rankin that New Brunswickers would be excluded for the travel agreement, said he didn’t plan to dwell on “spilled milk” and expects the two provinces will be able to resolve their differences for the good of the entire region.

“I’m confident we’ll have a return of the Atlantic bubble, and hopeful we’ll have that shortly,” he said. “Once we get back in the bubble, we’ll put all this behind us.”

Nova Scotia will join Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador in a joint opening made possible by steadily declining COVID-19 rates across the region. The move means travellers won't have to isolate for 14 days upon entering each province. The Canadian Press

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