Flights to Mexico and the Caribbean will grind to a halt on Sunday, and Canadian residents who travel internationally by air for non-essential reasons will soon face a more restrictive and expensive quarantine program on their return.
In addition, private security officers on government contract have begun monitoring people who are in mandatory 14-day isolation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the changes in Ottawa on Friday. He said the new rules are meant to deter sunseekers from flying south and to slow the spread of more-transmissible variants of the coronavirus. The first new variant was detected more than four months ago in Britain, and swept through an Ontario long-term care home recently. As of Friday, 50 residents had died.
The rules will bring more pain to an industry devastated by the pandemic, but Mr. Trudeau said WestJet Airlines Ltd., Air Canada, Sunwing Airlines Inc. and Transat AT Inc. all agreed to cancel flights to the popular winter getaways until April 30. The airlines will co-ordinate return flights for travellers who are abroad now, he said.
The cancellations do not target countries such as Britain, where the new variants have supplanted the original version of the virus. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said flights to other winter destinations were not cancelled because the focus was on the most popular.
Mr. Trudeau made no announcement on the federal aid the aviation industry has been seeking as it posts billions of dollars in losses and lays off thousands of people. He said talks are “ongoing.”
The federal government is considering a program in which taxpayers would cover non-repayable grants to airlines so they can give refunds to customers whose flights were cancelled, a source in the industry said.
The Globe and Mail is not disclosing the person’s name because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
People returning from non-essential trips abroad will soon have to pay for a COVID-19 test upon arrival at the airport and a three-day stay at a quarantine hotel while awaiting the result. They are already required to pay for a test before boarding the airplane that must be negative and taken within three days of travel.
The government has not yet said when the new rules will take effect. It estimates the hotel stay will cost more than $2,000 to cover accommodation, food, security and infection prevention and control measures. This is “not just your regular stay at a hotel,” Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said on Friday.
People who test positive for COVID-19 will complete their quarantines at a separate federal facility, and the government will pick up the tab. Those whose COVID-19 test comes back negative will be allowed to complete their quarantine at home.
Effective immediately, enforcement of 14-day self-isolation is being increased. Mr. Trudeau announced that staff from private security firms are visiting people who are supposed to be quarantining at home.
“We are increasing the number of calls we’re making from the federal government,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We’re hiring private security firms to help with those follow-ups and, of course, there will be particular focus given on returning travellers.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has contracted four private security firms for the work. The staff were trained by the public-health agency and are authorized to act as screening officers under the Quarantine Act, according to a news release from the government.
The quarantine officers can give warnings and refer “any cases that warrant a stronger enforcement action” to PHAC, which would contact law enforcement, the news release said. The federal government did not give more information on the officers’ powers.
The door-knocking started in Montreal and Toronto on Friday, and will eventually reach 35 cities across Canada, Public Health said.
Ottawa will also start requiring a COVID-19 test on the 10th day of quarantine. The traveller will also have to pay for this test. Officials could not explain how it would be conducted.
Mr. Trudeau also said non-essential travellers at land borders will soon have to show a negative COVID-19 test before entering Canada, and more testing requirements will be announced in the coming weeks.
Just hours after Mr. Trudeau’s announcement, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his province would implement mandatory COVID-19 tests for international travellers arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Monday at noon. He called the move a stopgap until the federal government’s new testing and quarantine measures are in place.
Health experts have been calling for tougher rules to protect against the new variants for months, and on Friday opposition parties said Mr. Trudeau acted too late. As recently as December, the minority Liberal government played down the risk of COVID-19 cases from travel.
Epidemiological models released this week from scientists at Simon Fraser University show that if a new variant takes hold, case counts could dwarf the records set in the current wave. Forecasts that Ontario released on Thursday assume the more transmissible variants of the coronavirus will largely replace the existing version by March.
The winter break is usually crucial for Canadian air carriers. WestJet, Air Canada, Sunwing and Transat all fly to Mexico, Cuba and other beach destinations.
Federal officials asked airlines on Thursday to help them prevent people from taking vacations, a separate source told The Globe. The request was not welcomed and came as a surprise, but presented a chance to negotiate, said the person, who The Globe is not naming because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The airlines agreed to suspend the sun-destination flights, and the government agreed to tighten U.S. land border crossings by requiring a negative test, to make quarantines less restrictive for those who test negative, and to stop casting the carriers as bad actors that are prolonging the pandemic, the source said.
On Friday, Mr. Trudeau hailed the airlines for their “leadership” and called them “strong partners in the fight to curb the spread of COVID-19.”
WestJet said on Friday it will cease flying to 14 destinations in response to the government’s request. Over the next two weeks, the airline will fly home Canadians who are in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Sun destinations comprised almost the entire February schedules of Montreal-based Transat and Toronto-based Sunwing. Air Transat has 131 flights, all but a few to Mexico, Cuba and Dominican Republic, according to aviation consultancy Cirium. Sunwing’s February schedule had 379 flights, almost all to and from Mexico and the Caribbean, Cirium said.
John Gradek, an aviation leadership lecturer at McGill University, said the new restrictions will be “absolutely devastating” for the airline industry. He predicted another round of layoffs, noting route eliminations and flight cancellations will follow.
“It’s another nail into the sarcophagus,” Mr. Gradek said.
With a report from Jeff Gray
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