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Light rush hour traffic crosses an interprovincial bridge between Gatineau, Que., and Ottawa, Ont., on March 16, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s National Capital Region is now divided in two after the Quebec government announced new travel restrictions, including police checks on all five major bridges between Ottawa and the neighbouring city of Gatineau, as part of its escalating measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The interprovincial travel restrictions are an expansion of containment measures that began last week in various parts of Canada, from New Brunswick to the Northwest Territories, as authorities try to fight a spike in coronavirus infections.

The controls announced Wednesday morning limit entry into Quebec from Ontario, but do not restrict people leaving Quebec. Police are stopping motorists trying to enter Gatineau and asking them the purpose of their travel. Only those crossing into Quebec for essential work, medical reasons or humanitarian purposes are guaranteed entry. At certain points during the day the check stops caused major backups on the bridges.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he had no advance notice of the bridge controls. He questioned the value of these measures, saying cross-border trips are already down and much of the traffic is essential travel. “I am not quite sure what the rationale is. I understand you don’t want to have people going over for cheap beer in a depanneur … . [But] that’s a lot of police resources in a pandemic that could probably better used in other ways.”

A spokesman for the Sûreté du Québec said a checkpoint had been set up on the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge, a major crossing that spans the Ottawa River and connects King Edward Avenue in Ottawa’s Lowertown neighbourhood to the Autoroute de la Gatineau in Quebec.

Gatineau Police set up “control points” at four other road bridges connecting the two cities: the Alexandra Bridge, the Chaudière Bridge, the Champlain Bridge and Portage Bridge. They are also screening traffic within their municipality that comes across by car ferry.

Constable Andrée East, spokeswoman for the police force, said the various crossing checkpoints will not run 24 hours a day, seven days a week but will be in effect as long as the Quebec government requests it.

Officers will stop cars to assess whether a trip is essential and are ready to step in if motorists refuse to comply, Gatineau Police said in an e-mail statement. “Although the [police service] favors a community persuasion approach … officers are ready to take coercive measures in the event of a refusal to cooperate,” the service said, noting they could also levy fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000 for people who do not comply, and that other checkpoints could be added later.

The Sûreté du Québec’s Marc Tessier described the traffic stops as a measure to remind motorists to stay home where possible.

“If you are working for essential services, it’s okay, but if it’s for recreational purposes, you could be asked to turn around and go back.”

Entering Quebec to head to one’s cottage would not be considered a good reason, he said. “Everybody has to stay at their principal residence, not at their cottages.”

The border controls are also a reminder that Canada’s capital region is not a capital district, such as Washington, but two cities from different provinces.

The National Capital Region comprises Ottawa in Ontario and Gatineau – formerly Hull – in Quebec, as well as surrounding communities. For many people who work for the federal government, their lives straddle the two provinces. Families have close relatives on both sides of the Ottawa River, and many Ottawa residents have cottages in Quebec. Many regional residents live in one of the cities and work in the other.

Last week, the RCMP began stopping vehicles going to Nova Scotia from New Brunswick, questioning drivers and ordering them into self-isolation under the terms of a state of emergency the province declared. The government made exceptions for commercial trucks, medical staff and other essential services. Vehicles travelling into the Northwest Territories from Alberta, British Columbia or Yukon are also being stopped on the highway and turned back, with exceptions. PEI has taken similar measures at its borders. Last week, the Manitoba government set up checkpoints at the five busiest border crossings to inform travellers of the risk of COVID-19.

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need.

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