Guest Post by Ron Penney
Why having an Atlantic Provinces travel bubble is a terrible idea and an imminent threat to public health.
Tomorrow, July 3rd, travel restrictions will be lifted for the Atlantic Provinces and residents of the Maritimes can visit us without the necessity of self isolation for two weeks. For the time being travel restrictions for other provinces remain the same, but the Premier has mused that they will be lifted in mid-July.
The agreement to have an Atlantic Provinces travel bubble, with no requirement to self isolate for two weeks is a risky and foolhardy decision for Newfoundland and Labrador, with little potential economic upside.
If we do get visitors from the other Atlantic Provinces, many will come by air, and most of these will join aircraft originating from Toronto or other provinces. Ontario and Quebec have had the bulk of cases in Canada. So many visitors will join an aircraft where the potential for having an infected person on board is relatively high. When the aircraft lands in St. John’s or Deer Lake the passengers from Toronto will still be required to self isolate but all the others are free to go anywhere in the province. If there is a case and others are infected our contact tracing capacity will be quickly overwhelmed.
Unlike PEI, as of July 1, we haven’t issued any new Guidelines for the implementation of the Atlantic Bubble outlying what proof has to be provided to demonstrate residency in the Atlantic Provinces, so visitors may arrive on Friday without the faintest idea of what is required.
Toronto remains one of the hot spots for the virus. On July 1 Nova Scotia Public Health has issued a warning of a possible exposure to Covid 19 on a West Jet flight to Halifax.
I agree with the cautionary approach taken by the province up to now. I have had serious concerns about their implementation, particularly the initial lack of enforcement of the self isolation order at the airports and ferry terminals, but we are told that has been remedied and arriving passengers are given an order and their contact information taken. Whether there is any follow up is an open question.
Nevertheless the proof is in the pudding. We apparently did take the self isolation orders seriously, and abided by the guidance on social distancing and bubbles and double bubbles. Good for us but I see a relaxation of social distancing happening. There will be much more travel around the province with all that implies.
We likely are Covid free and have taken advantage of our geography, both on the island and in Labrador and we should look to other jurisdictions which have been equally successful in controlling their cases and not overwhelming their health care system.
For example Iceland has now opened up for tourism, which is important for their economy as it is for us. But they require that every visitor take a Covid test at the airport or self isolate for two weeks.
The other Atlantic provinces have different travel restrictions. For example, Nova Scotia, which has the largest population in Atlantic Canada, never restricted travel. It only required that visitors self isolate for two weeks on arrival. It also hasn’t restricted occupancy levels in bars and restaurants. So the likelihood of new cases originating from there is high.
Since Halifax airport is the hub for Atlantic Canada that increases the risk of transmittal to visitors to this province.
I understand the pressure from the business community, particularly in the hospitality sector, to open up their businesses to increased occupancy, but the Atlantic Bubble makes that less likely.
There is no community transmission in Newfoundland and Labrador, which means that if we kept our travel restrictions in place we could have done what Iceland has done, and removed occupancy limits for bars and restaurants, and other facilities.
It’s hard to understand why there was such a reversal in our travel restrictions. On the very same day government announced the Atlantic Bubble, it announced the Stay Home Year initiative costing $450,000. This had to be predicted on maintaining the travel restrictions for the tourist season.
If we are now permitted to travel to the other Atlantic Provinces it seems likely that quite a few of us will. There will be some set off as Maritimers visit us but the net result will probably not outweigh the loss of local business. Are the substantial risks of a breakout of new cases worth it? Marine Atlantic has reported that reservations are divided equally between outgoing and incoming passengers.
We will also have created a logistical nightmare at our airports and ferry terminal, trying to distinguish between those who are from the Maritimes and those who are not. We had a hard enough time organizing handling a general travel restriction.
Airports and ferry terminals are practicing social distancing to the degree they can. And air carriers require the wearing of masks. But they have just announced that they will be now selling the middle seats. Air travel is still very risky.
What happened to cause such a sudden reversal of policy?
I can only think of two possible reasons.
The first is pressure from the business community. I understand the economic devastation caused by the public health measures, which, along with our dire fiscal situation, the collapse in oil prices, and the imminent doubling of electricity prices when Muskrat Falls is completed, have created a crisis for us, which will only get worse.
I note in passing that many of the signatories of the letter to the Premier were the same as those who supported the Muskrat Falls project through the “I believe in the Power...” campaign. So I would treat their arguments with a grain of salt. They have been proven wrong on Muskrat Falls and they are equally wrong now.
We have the oldest and unhealthiest population in Canada and they are the most susceptible to COVID 19. Our first duty is to protect them. Public health has to be the top priority and our population is the most at risk. (Full disclosure, I am in that high risk group, over 70, but relatively healthy so far as I know.) I suppose you could quarantine all of us, but I doubt that is politically possible.
The second reason may be a concern that they are on less than solid ground in defending themselves against constitutional challenges to the travel restrictions.
While you can never be entirely sure of winning a court case, I think we are on very solid grounds. (During the patriation of the Constitution, which included the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I was Deputy Minister of Justice and a member of the provincial negotiating team.)
The argument is that the travel restrictions are contrary to the mobility rights provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
What are those rights?
Every citizen and permanent resident has the right:
“a. to move to and take up residence in any province, and
b. to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”
Mobility rights and other fundamental rights are, however “subject only to such reasonable rights prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Two of the exemptions which are permitted under our public health orders permit someone who intends to move here and take up residency, or pursue their livelihood, be granted permission to do so upon showing proof.
There is no constitutional right to be a tourist.
And the public health orders are laws made under the authority of our public health legislation and surely are justified by the pandemic whose origins, with the exception of Wuhan, come from travel.
I do agree that people who have seasonal properties here, and are prepared to self isolate for the requisite two week period, should be allowed in. They own property here and pay taxes here and would not pose a health risk to the province and we can rest assured that permanent residents in those communities will keep a close watch on compliance with the public health order.