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Adriana and Art Sibley, seen here in their Barrie, Ont. home on April 30, 2020, had been in Arizona for two months, at their winter getaway, when they decided to come home. With shops and other businesses closing up, and warnings for snow birds to return to Canada, they emptied the fridge, packed up their belongings and made the four day drive back to Canada.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 8,000 flights left the country in the week leading up to the federal government’s advisory that Canadians should refrain from all non-essential travel due to COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail analysis of flight data.

The flight data, shared by tracking company FlightRadar24, provide a glimpse into travel volumes during a time now seen as crucial in the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

Ottawa’s travel caution didn’t come until March 13, just two days before the beginning of spring break in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, one of the country’s busiest travel periods. Adding to travellers’ confusion that week were mixed messages from federal and provincial officials across Canada on whether it was safe to travel.

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Quebeckers were already back at school and work after the province’s earlier spring break, in which more than 2,100 flights left Montreal for places such as Paris, Cancun, Mexico and Varadero, Cuba. (The flight data do not include the number of passengers.)

Number of flights leaving Canada daily

1,300

1,200

1,100

7,976

flights

1,000

Week before

spring break

in B.C., Ont.,

PEI, N.S.

900

800

700

Travel

advisory

600

500

400

Trudeau

tells Canadian

to come home

300

200

Feb. 24

2020

Mar. 1

8

15

22

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Number of flights leaving Canada daily

1,300

1,200

1,100

7,976

flights

1,000

900

Week before

spring break in

B.C., Ont., PEI, N.S.

800

700

Travel

advisory

600

500

400

Trudeau tells

Canadians to

come home

300

200

Feb. 24

2020

Mar. 1

8

15

22

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Number of flights leaving Canada daily

1,300

1,200

1,100

7,976

flights

1,000

900

Week before

spring break in

B.C., Ont., PEI, N.S.

800

700

600

Travel

advisory

500

Trudeau tells

Canadians to

come home

400

300

200

Feb. 24

2020

Mar. 1

8

15

22

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, the federal government has significantly tightened travel rules. Flights into Canada are restricted to Canadian citizens, permanent residents and other groups, such as international students and agricultural workers. Airlines must refuse travel to anyone, Canadian or not, displaying COVID-19 symptoms, and all those arriving in Canada are required to immediately self-isolate for 14 days.

Earlier travel restrictions could have reduced the spread of the novel coronavirus in Canada, said Raiyan Chowdhury, a critical care physician and ear, nose and throat surgeon in Edmonton. Most of Canada’s cases in late February and early March were travel-related, Dr. Chowdhury noted. He said the federal government should have issued an advisory or set up travel restrictions by late February.

“We could have saved lives,” he said.

Countries such as Denmark, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic clamped down at their borders in early March, when it became clear the virus had spread beyond China’s Hubei province, where SARS-CoV-2 likely originated. By late February, it was clear travellers were bringing the virus to Canada from countries such as Iran, Italy and the United States.

In the week leading to the announcement, 7,976 flights left Canada for international destinations. The Globe has also identified more than 5,200 flights between Canada and countries with at least 1,000 COVID-19 cases between March 1 and March 13.

“That’s a crazy number,” Dr. Chowdhury said. “Our hospital systems were planning for a pandemic, yet the federal government hadn’t advised Canadians not to travel abroad."

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The flight data come with a caveat: They don’t exclude air cargo traffic (which, on an average day, accounts for about 4 per cent of total flight traffic). The federal government does not currently collect outgoing passenger figures – one of myriad crucial data gaps that have surfaced during the pandemic – although the Canada Border Services Agency said it plans to begin doing so this summer.

How Canada’s crucial data gaps are hindering the coronavirus pandemic response

Hope and fear grip Italians as the world’s longest coronavirus lockdown is partly lifted

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, some countries report new infection peaks

Susan Brogly, an epidemiologist at Queen’s University, said that by the time of Ottawa’s advisory in mid-March, the coronavirus was likely already circulating within Canada.

“When should the travel advisory have happened? Probably sooner,” she said. But she suspects many Canadians would not have heeded an earlier warning given how few cases Canada had then – 198 by March 13, according to provincial figures compiled by The Globe.

Quebec

Number of flights between Quebec and

European countries during March break

France

158 flights

Switzerland

Britain

54

54

Belgium

Austria

Germany

23

23

49

Other European countries

64

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Number of flights between Quebec and European

countries during March break

France

158 flights

Switzerland

Britain

54

54

Belgium

Austria

Germany

23

23

49

Other European countries

64

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Number of flights between Quebec and European countries during March break

158 flights

64

54

54

49

23

23

France

Britain

Switzerland

Germany

Austria

Belgium

Other

European

countries

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Quebec and New Brunswick had the earliest spring breaks in Canada this year, in early March. By the time their spring breakers had come home, no sweeping travel advisories or quarantine restrictions were yet in effect.

From Feb. 28 – the Friday leading to Quebec’s spring break – to March 9, 425 flights left the province’s airports for Europe or flew from Europe to Quebec. Of those flights, about two in five departed from or arrived in France, which had more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases by March 9, according to Johns Hopkins University. At that point, Quebec had only five confirmed cases, and no deaths.

Since then, the province’s infection numbers have eclipsed those in the rest of the country. As of May 4, Quebec had more than 31,800 confirmed cases, 2,200 deaths and the highest number of per-capita cases in the country.

New Brunswick, on the other hand, has registered the third-lowest number of cases per capita, behind only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Dr. Chowdhury thinks this could be because of the province’s smaller population and density, leading to fewer opportunities for infection.

When asked if Quebec’s early spring break might have hindered its ability to contain the virus, Prof. Brogly was unequivocal. “Absolutely,” she said, noting that travel to and from Europe may have been a large contributor to infections in the province. Such travel is also the suspected origin of many infections in New York, one of the hardest-hit areas in the United States.

Quebec’s land border with the United States was also busy during spring break. Data provided by Statistics Canada show that during the first half of March, 126,873 Canadian residents driving Canadian-licensed automobiles entered Quebec from the United States. The federal government does not collect statistics on the number of exit land crossings – that is, people leaving Canada. While the United States does collect these figures, data were not yet available for March.

Ontario

Flights leaving the country before

the government’s travel advisory

We can see how many cumulative flights

would have been affected if Ottawa had issued

its warning against non-essential travel a week

earlier. In Ontario’s case, 4,456 international

flights left the province between March 6 and

March 13, when the advisory went out.

Flights to countries with at least 1,000 cases

To countries with fewer than 1,000 cases

ONTARIO

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

March 13

backwards to…

March 6

Quebec

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

British Columbia

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

Alberta

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

Rest of canada

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Flights leaving the country before the

federal government’s travel advisory

We can see how many cumulative flights would have

been affected if Ottawa had issued its warning against

non-essential travel a week earlier. In Ontario’s case, 4,456

international flights left the province between March 6

and March 13, when the advisory went out.

Flights to countries with at least 1,000 confirmed cases

To countries with fewer than 1,000 cases

ONTARIO

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

March 13

Counting backwards to…

March 6

Quebec

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

British Columbia

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

Alberta

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

Rest of canada

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

Flights leaving the country before the

federal government’s travel advisory

We can see how many cumulative flights would have been affected if

Ottawa had issued its warning against non-essential travel a week earlier.

In Ontario’s case, 4,456 international flights left the province between

March 6 and March 13, when the advisory went out.

Flights to countries with at least 1,000 confirmed cases

To countries with fewer than 1,000 cases

ONTARIO

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

March 13

March 6

Counting backwards to…

Quebec

British Columbia

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

Alberta

Rest of canada

5,000

4,000

3,000

2,000

1,000

0

March 6

March 13

March 13

March 6

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24

On the morning of March 12, before a two-day first ministers’ meeting in Ottawa, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, flanked by five of his ministers, gave a short speech laying out his goals for the meeting and the province’s evolving COVID-19 response.

As the press conference wrapped up, a reporter asked one final question: With March break starting in two days, would families be allowed to come back without having to submit to a 14-day quarantine? “I just want the families and their children to have a good time,” Mr. Ford replied. “Go away, have a good time, enjoy yourself.”

Within a few hours, David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Health Officer, issued a memo advising against all non-essential travel outside Canada, contradicting the Premier. That warning came too late for many vacationers.

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Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, said Mr. Ford’s early travel advice was “irresponsible,” adding that a public inquiry examining the province’s response to the crisis should be held once the pandemic is over.

In an e-mailed statement, Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for Mr. Ford, said that, at the time of March 12 press conference, the Premier was acting on the latest advice from provincial health officials and federal travel rules.

The province is home to the country’s busiest airport, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, which in March accounted for about 38 per cent of all international flights leaving Canada. Many Canadian travellers pass through Pearson on their way to international destinations.

From March 6 to March 13, the week before Ontario’s spring break, 4,456 international flights left the province’s airports. The United States was the top destination, accounting for almost 70 per cent of flights. Many were likely connecting flights for passengers, given that the country is a major hub for Canadians travelling abroad.

That said, 479 flights leaving Ontario went to Florida, a popular vacation destination.

The next three top international destinations were all vacation hot spots for Canadians: Mexico (223 flights), Cuba (162) and the Dominican Republic (119). An additional 300 flights headed to Europe, including 88 to Britain, 50 to Germany and 30 to France.

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On Saturday, March 14, a day after the federal government advised Canadians against non-essential travel, Ottawa urged Canadians abroad to return home while they could, hinting at the border closings to come.

Before the travel warnings, Ontario had 59 confirmed cases and was yet to register any deaths. Two weeks later, Ontario had reported almost 1,000 cases and 18 deaths. Today, Ontario’s COVID-19 case statistics are second only to Quebec, with 17,553 confirmed cases and 1,216 deaths as of May 4.

British Columbia

With spring break coming up, B.C.’s medical officials and provincial politicians were being asked if it was safe to travel.

On Wednesday, March 11 – the day the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic – the province’s chief public- health official, Bonnie Henry, told British Columbians it was still safe to travel within the country, but to avoid heading abroad. The next day, Dr. Henry reversed herself, warning residents to avoid all non-essential travel.

“I don’t think I slept at all any of those nights,” Dr. Henry told The Globe in an interview last month. Troubling data were coming in from Quebec, where spring break had ended less than a week earlier, suggesting a spike in infections.

Her change of heart likely gave potential travellers crucial time to rethink their vacation plans before the travel frenzy of their own spring break. Although B.C. had some of Canada’s earliest cases, it has contained the virus’ spread much more effectively than did Quebec, Ontario or Alberta, recording 2,171 cases and 114 deaths as of May 4.

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For Janna Foreman and her family, that warning came too late.

By March 12, Ms. Foreman, a 46-year-old middle school teacher from Chilliwack, B.C., was already in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with her husband, two kids, her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law’s sister.

When she saw a speech on March 16 in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians to come home, it became clear she had to return. The family cut their holidays short by two weeks and returned on March 20, paying $4,000 out-of-pocket for new flights. No one in her family has come down with symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.

In hindsight, Ms. Foreman wishes the government had acted sooner. “If they had said this earlier in March, we wouldn’t have gone,” she said.

When the family left Cabo, Mexico had 203 confirmed cases. As of early May, the number had grown to more than 23,400.

The federal government’s response

Number of flights leaving Canada

between March 13 and 16, 2020

Top 15 travel destinations over the weekend

United States

3,006

378

Mexico

188

Cuba

Had at least 1,000

confirmed cases

by March 13

124

Dominican Republic

83

Britain

70

Jamaica

55

France

47

Germany

42

China

36

Bahamas

France, Germany,

China and South

Korea also had at

least 1,000 cases

35

Japan

32

Costa Rica

31

Netherlands

22

South Korea

21

Hong Kong

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

Number of flights leaving Canada

between March 13 and 16, 2020

Top 15 travel destinations over the weekend

United States

3,006

378

Mexico

188

Cuba

Had at least 1,000

confirmed cases

by March 13

124

Dominican Republic

83

Britain

70

Jamaica

55

France

47

Germany

42

China

36

Bahamas

France, Germany,

China and South Korea

also had at least

1,000 cases

35

Japan

32

Costa Rica

31

Netherlands

22

South Korea

21

Hong Kong

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

Number of flights leaving Canada between March 13 and 16, 2020

Top 15 travel destinations over the weekend

United States

3,006

378

Mexico

Had at least 1,000

confirmed cases

by March 13

188

Cuba

124

Dominican Republic

83

Britain

70

Jamaica

55

France

47

Germany

42

China

36

Bahamas

France, Germany,

China and South Korea

also had at least

1,000 cases

35

Japan

32

Costa Rica

31

Netherlands

22

South Korea

21

Hong Kong

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FLIGHTRADAR24, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

Air traffic declined quickly after the Prime Minister’s call for Canadians abroad to return home.

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But between the government’s travel advisory on Friday, March 13, and Mr. Trudeau’s speech on Monday, thousands of flights had left the country, suggesting many families still headed for their vacations. During that four-day window, 4,575 flights left Canada: About 66 per cent headed for the U.S. while another 15 per cent flew directly to Mexico, Cuba or the Dominican Republic.

Within a week of Mr. Trudeau’s announcement, the number of international flights entering or leaving Canada plummeted from 2,253 a day to 1,056. A week after that, just 350 flights entered or left the country.

Prof. Brogly, the epidemiologist, credits the government for cutting down on travel and shuttering the borders when it did. “It certainly prevented more cases coming in,” she said.

Todd Doherty, the Conservative Party’s transport critic, says the advisory about non-essential travel came too late. Canada’s economy has taken a big hit in a bid to prevent COVID-19 from spreading and overwhelming the health care system. Provinces shut schools and non-essential businesses in mid-March – a nationwide lockdown that is gradually starting to lift only now.

“I wish [the travel advisory] would’ve come out weeks earlier,” said Mr. Doherty, who was an aviation executive before entering politics. “I think there was enough information early in January for implementing stricter measures.”

When asked why Ottawa didn’t issue an advisory or restrictions sooner, a spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu directed The Globe to statements on March 13 by Ms. Hajdu and Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer. At the time, Dr. Njoo said the non-essential travel advisory was issued because Canadian cases had been traced to travel to the U.S. and Europe.

Global Affairs Canada said in a brief statement it makes decisions based on the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

In early April, the U.S.-based Pew Research Center calculated that 91 per cent of the world’s population was living under some form of travel restriction, and that about three billion people lived in countries where borders were completely closed to non-residents or non-citizens. Many closings came in mid-to-late March, timing similar to Canada’s.

After the government’s call for Canadians to return home, airports were overwhelmed. There were reports of long waits at customs and inconsistent guidance on whether returning travellers should self-isolate. On March 25, the government invoked the Quarantine Act, making a 14-day self-isolation mandatory for all people arriving in Canada.

Land crossings

Cumulative number of Canadians crossing

by land from U.S. into Canada

In millions

March, 2020

March, 2019

2.5

By March 10,

crossings had

fallen out of

sync with 2019

2.0

1.5

1.0

Border

closed

0.5

0.0

Mar. 1

6

11

16

21

26

Note: Only those crossing in a

Canadian-licensed automobile.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

Cumulative number of Canadians crossing

by land from U.S. into Canada

In millions

March, 2020

March, 2019

2.5

By March 10,

crossings had

fallen out of

sync with 2019

2.0

1.5

1.0

Border

closed

0.5

0.0

March 1

6

11

16

21

26

Note: Only those crossing in a Canadian-licensed automobile.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

Cumulative number of Canadians crossing by land from U.S. into Canada

In millions

March, 2020

March, 2019

2.5

By March 10,

crossings had

fallen out of

sync with 2019

2.0

1.5

1.0

Border

closed

0.5

0.0

March 1

6

11

16

21

26

Note: Only those crossing in a Canadian-licensed automobile.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

When the Prime Minister told Canadians to return home, it triggered a mass homecoming for Canada’s snowbirds, many of whom drive to their winter homes in the United States.

Adriana Sibley, a 72-year-old retiree from Barrie, Ont., winters with her husband in a seniors’ community – a “seniors’ playground,” as she prefers to call it – in Mesa, Ariz., where they enjoy hiking, cycling and playing pickleball, a game somewhere between tennis and ping-pong.

Ms. Sibley and her husband had been in Arizona since Jan. 2, and planned to stay until the end of March. But when a visit from her grandchildren was cancelled by their parents, they realized it was time to head home. They embarked on the 3,600-kilometre drive on March 15, arriving in Canada four days later. They have been healthy and symptom-free since coming home.

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Adriana and Art Sibley were among the 1.2 million Canadians who re-entered the country by car in March, according to land crossing data provided by Statistics Canada.

Fred Lum

While Ms. Sibley wishes the government had buttoned up the border sooner, she still credits it for issuing the advisory. “They were going by the seat of their pants, too,” she said. “I don’t blame them for leaving it a little late.”

She was among 1.2 million Canadians who re-entered the country by car in March, according to land crossing data provided by Statistics Canada that captures about 80 per cent of cross-border traffic. In 2019, by comparison, 2.2-million Canadians re-entered the country during the same time period, evidence of the impact of Canada’s border closing with the U.S. on March 20.

Land border crossing data from Statistics Canada suggest the number of crossings began to slow well before that announcement. As early as March 10, the trend in Canadian border crossings had already fallen out of sync with 2019. By March 20, 356,000 fewer Canadians in Canadian-licensed automobiles had been admitted into the country.

Looking forward

As of early May, Canada’s borders were almost entirely idle. In data released this week, the Canada Border Services Agency provided a snapshot of border traffic on May 3, 2020, comparing it with May 5, 2019 – the same day of the week last year.

The reductions are staggering: The number of travellers entering Canada on U.S.-originating flights was down 99.2 per cent. The number of travellers arriving from other parts of the world was down 96.8 per cent. Non-commercial highway travellers were down 98 per cent, while passenger rail registered zero travellers entering the country from the United States.

Prof. Brogly said the reopening of travel will have to wait until infections are clearly under control, and we have fast, reliable tests to screen travellers for infection – both things that are unlikely to happen soon.

“I think it’s just completely impractical for travel to happen right now,” she said, noting that people in some parts of Canada may be allowed to travel sooner than others depending on how many infections they still have.

For now, travel is still highly restricted, and people entering the country are screened for symptoms and required to quarantine for 14 days, with or without symptoms. All non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border is suspended until May 21, although that could be extended.

David Collenette, who was transport minister in the government of Jean Chrétien, is no stranger to managing travel in times of crisis: He was transport minister at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when North American aerospace largely ground to a halt.

Mr. Collenette expects that once postpandemic measures are no longer necessary, travel will mostly return to normal, although that will likely take between a year and 18 months.

Canada will have to reopen to travel slowly, and with substantial guardrails. “You’re talking about planes that hold 300 to 400 people," he said. "How are they going to travel? Are our planes going to fly half full?”

In late April, Transport Canada made masks mandatory for all air travellers, and more measures are likely. In Austria, for instance, some travellers are required to present a medical certificate stating they’ve tested negative for the virus. In Hong Kong, all arrivals are tested at the airport.

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