TORONTO – I’ve been dreaming about Calgary all week – specifically the airport.
Starting Monday, Calgary International Airport will offer arriving international passengers the opportunity to spend just 48 hours in quarantine instead of the normally required two long individual weeks. This is done with free coronavirus tests.
Ed Sims, WestJet Airlines’ chief executive officer, said the pilot was “the first good news” the airline heard since Feb. 29, when he watched bookings nosedive and never recover.
For me it offered a precious hope for a long, dark Canadian winter: escape. And the Canadian government has recognized that through this program and another study that funds it, I am not the only one who thinks that way.
Like most Canadians, I haven’t entered an airport since March, when the country closed itself up like a tight, tough role-playing game. Returning home from Belize, confused by how quickly the world had changed, I promptly canceled a trip to Haiti. The Canadian government not only banned foreigners from entering the country, but also ordered Canadians to avoid “minor travel”. To underscore what was considered “essential,” the government has placed a mandatory two-week quarantine on anyone returning to the country, with fines or possible jail time for those who break it.
To date, 77 people have been fined and seven have been charged, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Any trip out of the country must be important enough to warrant a long lonely penance.
Measures have not changed in months and Canadians have largely stopped traveling. Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, has shed 20,000 jobs – or half its workforce – retired 79 aircraft and suspended many routes. At the end of June, the company announced that sales had declined 89 percent from the previous year.
Calgary Airport – the fourth busiest in Canada – saw passenger traffic drop 79 percent in September, and WestJet, the local airline, has parked more than 135 of its fleet of 181 aircraft, according to Morgan Bell, a company spokeswoman.
In addition, the province of Manitoba and the four that make up the “Atlantic Bubble” have announced their own quarantine rules for other Canadians.
Taken together, Calin Rovinescu, CEO of Air Canada, described the country’s travel rules as “one of the strictest flight restrictions in the world”.
The words “severe” and “regime” are not the ones I commonly use to describe Canada. But he was right – Canada remains one of the few countries in the world that is more or less closed off. Japan this week announced it will lift travel bans from certain countries and relax its self-isolation rules, and Singapore added China to its growing list of countries from which admitted visitors will not be quarantined.
Canadians look across the border into the US, where there are no travel restrictions or self-isolation rules, resulting in terrible infection rates, and are increasingly determined to keep the border closed to incoming visitors.
Winter is coming, however, and there is growing awareness that Canadians will accept some science-backed flexibility.
A recent survey sponsored by unions representing airport workers found that more than half of Canadians would support relaxing quarantine rules for visitors who test negative for the coronavirus after arriving in Canada.
Most of the support was found in Alberta.
That brings us to the pilot program announced this month that will offer a coronavirus test to travelers arriving at the Calgary airport, as well as travelers passing through the busiest border crossing from Montana to Canada.
Unlike other programs recently launched at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport, these are not rapid tests that are considered less reliable by the scientific community, but rather regular polymerase chain reaction tests performed in a laboratory need to be analyzed. Results are expected to take 24 to 48 hours. During this time, the quarantine rules apply. However, once a negative result is obtained, people can emerge from their homes. Around day 6 or day 7 – when a person who is incubating the virus is most likely to show symptoms – these travelers get a second test to make sure they don’t have the virus and they get calls from one every day Nurse said Jason Kenney, the Prime Minister of Alberta. You have to stay in Alberta for 14 days.
The program, which is expected to last 26 weeks and is under review by provincial and federal health officials, is designed to inform broader government policies, Kenney said at a news conference.
“We have to find ways to bring back safe travel if we are ever going to blow the economy on all cylinders,” Kenney said on the speakerphone when he was self-isolating at home after one of his ministers tested positive for the virus. He said he plans to extend the program to Edmonton Airport by February.
So far, there is no evidence that the program is expanding to other parts of the country. When pressed, Patty Hajdu, the country’s health minister, said she was waiting for “adequate and accurate research” before making a change. Canada this week announced funding for a study that will test passengers arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport three times for the coronavirus during their quarantine. The goal is to assess whether two weeks of complete isolation is warranted and to compare results from different countries with different transmission rates, said Dr. Vivek Goel, Professor of Public Health at the University of Toronto and a member of the study.
Without this, it would be “politically difficult” for the Canadian government to accept travelers from distant locations where lower infection rates are reported, such as New Zealand, while the border is for its neighbors and largest trading partners, the Americans.
“I hope it will be easier for politicians to say, ‘This is the framework that is determined by data and science, and we will relax border controls in these countries,” said Dr Goel.
In the meantime, he admitted that he had looked at travel packages to Antigua and planned to self-isolate for two weeks upon his return.
“We can’t survive winter without at least a week of sun,” he said.
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