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Motorists enter Canada from the U.S. at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey, B.C., on May 13, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Ethan Futrelle hasn’t had a day off in over a month.

Evergreen Town Car’s director of operations has been shuttling British Columbians back home from two Washington State airports so that they can cross the border in his monster SUV and avoid quarantining in a federally approved hotel, as is required of those disembarking on Canadian soil from an international flight. His clients can afford a pricey stint in one of these hotels, but are opting to spend their two weeks of postholiday isolation in the comfort of their own home.

Evergreen’s fleet of six vehicles is bringing 20 to 30 Canadians north each day for a typical trip of US$275, he said, and is turning down about six people a day who want a ride to the border so they can walk into Canada and get picked up by friends and family.

A handful of other American taxi companies operating just south of B.C. and in New York and Michigan told The Globe and Mail they are enjoying a similar surge in these cross-border trips.

Critics say new statistics paint a picture of an unequal quarantine system full of loopholes that add risk to Canada’s fight against COVID-19.

How do Canada’s quarantine hotels work?

Since late February, 2021, anyone flying into Canada from abroad has had to take a COVID-19 test on arrival at the airport, then wait for the results at a supervised hotel. That’s in addition to the test they have to take before departure so that the airline will allow them to board. Those who test negative for the airport test in Canada can complete the rest of their 14-day quarantine at home, but anyone who tests positive will stay put while health officials check whether they have a variant.

Air travellers have to book and pay for a three-night stay before they arrive in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto or Vancouver, the only places currently accepting international flights; here is the federal advice page on how to do that. Hotels must offer free wireless internet, contactless meal delivery and a process to allow brief outdoor breaks; learn more about what to expect in the hotels here.

There are some exemptions to hotel quarantine for for temporary foreign workers, unaccompanied minors and people who’ve recently recovered from COVID-19 and have a molecular test to prove it. People driving into Canada from the United States don’t have to stay at the hotels, but they still have to self-isolate and have their paperwork and quarantine plans in order.

Read our full explainer on Canada’s pandemic travel rules.

Almost a third of the roughly 300,000 international air travellers that have touched down in the country since new rules were created in the middle of February have been exempted from quarantining at a hotel, according to latest data from the Public Health Agency of Canada. People who qualify for an exemption include those bringing in essential goods or workers, sick people getting non-coronavirus treatment within a day and a half of entering the country, and those who must cross the border daily or weekly for their job.

The agency says a further 798 Canadians have been fined $3,000 at Vancouver and Toronto’s airports for refusing to go to a hotel to await COVID-19 test results, while none has been reportedly issued at the other two designated international airports of Calgary and Montreal. The rules apply to international air travellers regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

Canada Border Services Agency, or CBSA, says overall measures have reduced non-commercial land crossings by 90 per cent and air entries by 96 per cent since the pandemic started. But the agency’s data showed more people started crossings the border by foot in Quebec and Western Canada in March and April, with B.C. and the Prairie checkpoints recording nearly as many or more pedestrians than during those months last year.

The CBSA could not break down how many of nearly 2.5 million crossings over land from the United States this year have been people using a taxi service like the one offered by Mr. Futrelle’s company.

“They actually have started asking a couple weeks ago at the border if they’re travelling by land to avoid the hotel quarantine and all of them are giving an emphatic, ‘Yes,’” Mr. Futrelle said of the daily interactions he witnesses between Canadian border guards and his passengers.

Improvements to border control systems may be too late to prevent the spikes in infections that have been hammering Ontario, Alberta and other parts of the country. But the existing loopholes might introduce new variants that evade vaccination and exacerbate the anger many feel toward people choosing to vacation abroad amid the pandemic, critics say.

Caroline Colijn, a professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University and Canada 150 Research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health, said international travel restrictions matter a lot more in places where the main tool to control the pandemic is keeping all cases out of a territory, such as in Atlantic Canada or island nations such as New Zealand.

But, she said, the rules across most of Canada are introducing risk that could increase as community transmission drops. She said stays at these quarantine hotels were mandated to curb travel, but the snowbirds’ common refrain is that they are safer isolating at home.

“It’s not enough of a disincentive if the limo is less expensive than the hotel or the fine is just as palatable,” Dr. Colijn said.

Plus, she added, monitoring someone quarantining at their home becomes complicated if they have other roommates.

“Right now if there’s a household of four and one person travels, we’re not asking the other three to isolate,” she said, adding a nursing home outbreak in Barrie, Ont., that killed 71 residents was linked back to international travel.

Julien Arino, a professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in population dynamics in epidemiology, said he assumes that, on average, these international travellers are following the quarantine rules whether in hotels or at home and many may be fully vaccinated – which means very few might be positive. But, he said, the hotel stays of up to 72 hours that cost as much as $3,000 encourage people to evade this system by crossing via land.

Mr. Futrelle said he has mostly been taking wealthy snowbirds from the small airport in Bellingham, Wash., back to Vancouver or its tony North Shore, but one day last week he picked up someone from Seattle’s international airport. This passenger had been visiting a daughter in the Cayman Islands and needed Mr. Futrelle to drop him at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal so he could cross the Georgia Strait and return to his home on Vancouver Island. (B.C. has carved the province into three massive regions to cut down on the spread of COVID-19 by banning non-essential road trips between these zones.)

Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor-General and Minister of Public Safety, was asked about this specific example last week in Victoria and said he was concerned and has raised this issue with the federal government. However, he said, the latest statistics he has seen show 92 per cent of people entering Canada have a quarantine plan and “there is a lot of enforcement that is taking place.”

Tammy Jarbeau, a spokesperson for Public Health, said in an e-mailed statement that the tickets so far issued have been for arriving in Canada and refusing to quarantine – not agreeing and then breaking the rules later.

Calgary Police Service is able to press charges under the federal Quarantine Act, but spokesperson Leah Brownridge said Public Health takes the lead on these cases and that the agency has only requested help enforcing the rules in one open case.

Blaise Boehmer, spokesperson for Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, said quarantine is a federal policy and airports are federal jurisdiction. He did not answer the question as to why Alberta is one of only two provinces to not sign onto the federal Contraventions Act, which makes it possible for Public Health officers and local police to issue tickets on the spot if they saw someone breaking the federal rules rather than take the more onerous path of securing a charge.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this included an incorrect percentage for the number of non-commercial land crossings.

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