Coronavirus: As provinces mull reopening, experts say borders remain a challenge

Coronavirus outbreak: Premier Moe unveils plan to reopen Saskatchewan economy
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe unveiled his government’s plan to reopen the provincial economy on Thursday, adding that COVID-19 restrictions “would be lifted” in five phases, with the first phase beginning on May 4 with the opening of medical service providers.

The question of how and when to lift the sweeping restrictions in place across Canadian communities in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus has dominated discussions since the crisis began.

As millions of Canadians enter their second month of lockdown, some provinces are eyeing plans to begin the slow, careful process of lifting some of the severe restrictions currently in place.

READ MORE: Should Canada restrict travel between provinces, territories?

Canadian leaders have offered cautious optimism that the country is succeeding at flattening the curve of the outbreak but they are also facing increasing pressure to provide hope to exhausted citizens.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced repeated questions about when restrictions will lift and on Thursday told reporters that while some restrictions on things like personal mobility could ease over the coming months, there’s no going back to “normal” without a vaccine or clear treatments.

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Provinces, though, will be able to make their own decisions on restrictions within their borders and so far, two have said they are rolling out plans to reopen.

Coronavirus outbreak: Dr. Tam says provinces must ‘tread very carefully’ when it comes to reopening the economy
Coronavirus outbreak: Dr. Tam says provinces must ‘tread very carefully’ when it comes to reopening the economy

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe outlined the five-phase approach his province will be taking in a provincial address on Wednesday evening, saying it will act “gradually and methodically” to reopen.

Prince Edward Island officials also said this week they will begin to ease up on restrictions in early May.

Manitoba as well is working on putting together such a plan.

READ MORE: Relaxing COVID-19 measures in some provinces could pose challenge for others

Those provinces, however, have seen a significantly lower number of cases than many others.

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Saskatchewan has reported 326 total cases while P.E.I. has reported just 26.

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Manitoba has seen 257 cases.

In comparison, Saskatchewan’s neighbouring Alberta has reported 3,401 cases, while Manitoba neighbour Ontario has seen 12,879 and Quebec has more than 20,000.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan to ‘cautiously’ reopen from the coronavirus pandemic in 5 phases

The discrepancies raise questions about what will happen when provinces hit less hard begin to reopen and what the continued effort to control the spread of COVID-19 will mean for interprovincial borders.

“Any time you have nearby or neighbouring jurisdictions that have different kinds of regulatory environments, it creates a lot of challenges regarding enforcement,” said Valorie Crooks, a professor of geography at Simon Fraser University who holds the Canada Research Chair in health service geographies.

“That’s the question that provinces are going to have to address.”

Crooks’ research focuses on health services across borders and she said one of the challenges facing provinces is that Canadians are highly mobile and there are many communities where people commute across provincial borders to work or seek health services.

READ MORE: New Zealand is reopening — how did it handle coronavirus differently than Canada?

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Lloydminster, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, is one example, as is the National Capital Region combining Ottawa and Gatineau.

All of that means putting strict limits on interprovincial movement is a challenging logistical prospect.

“Many provinces in Canada have no hard borders,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba — we are not exactly islands where we can cut off travel between provinces. We are going to have to make sure we’re on the same page with this.”

He added that the nature of the virus means the movement of people is always a risk.

“This virus does not travel in the air,” said Jenne. “It travels on people and the more people move between provincial borders and even within their own community, this is how this virus gets around.”

Coronavirus outbreak: Saskatchewan anticipates potential ‘localized flare ups’ as economy reopens
Coronavirus outbreak: Saskatchewan anticipates potential ‘localized flare ups’ as economy reopens

Under Section 6 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of movement is a constitutional right, including between provinces. But like all rights, it can be subject to reasonable limits.

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And so far, no province has put a complete shutdown into place, with all allowing exemptions for things like truckers and essential business that keep the country running.

By and large, what border restrictions are in place tend to focus on screening and quarantine rather than outright bans on entering another part of the country.

Quebec, for example, has set up checkpoints on major bridges crossing from Ontario into the province along with restrictions on access to several remote regions.

Coronavirus outbreak: Police screen drivers at checkpoints to restrict movement in Quebec amid COVID-19 spread
Coronavirus outbreak: Police screen drivers at checkpoints to restrict movement in Quebec amid COVID-19 spread

Nova Scotia has put checkpoints in place on highways, at airports and in ferry terminals and anyone coming into the province is being ordered into a 14-day quarantine.

New Brunswick is turning away travel it deems non-essential but is conducting extra screening on travellers coming in from neighbouring Nova Scotia, Quebec and P.E.I., while the Island requires anyone coming into the province to go into a 14-day quarantine.

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In the Northwest Territories, all non-essential travel is banned and Yukon is screening all travellers before ordering them into a quarantine period.

Ontario doesn’t have any isolation requirements for those coming into the province, nor does Saskatchewan, and Crooks said she doesn’t expect to see new measures imposed at this point.

Part of that likely comes down to a recognition that doing so could have sharp consequences both in terms of further economic damage and in lack of access to vital services.

“In general in Canada, there is a strong will to make sure that we care for our neighbours,” Crooks said.

“I don’t expect that any of the ways that these measures will be put in place will be done with any sort of intent to protect one’s own provincial citizens, for lack of a better phrase, in a way that would harm those of other provinces.”

With a file from The Canadian Press.