Peeling back protections on international travel complicated, but possible: experts

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Airlines navigating a crisis that will change the industry
WATCH: Airlines navigating a crisis that will change the industry – May 1, 2020

Vacation plans dashed. Summer excursions in limbo. Snowbird escapes in jeopardy.

The COVID-19 crisis has put a significant dent in travel around the world.

It’s left many wondering the same thing: when can we travel again? As with most questions about life after the pandemic, experts say there’s no straightforward answer.

“That will mostly depend on the evolving nature of the pandemic in countries outside of Canada,” said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a global health professor at York University.

“I don’t think we’re going to see tourism for a while. As long as that 14-day quarantine order is in place, I don’t think people will be going on holiday.”

READ MORE: Airline conducts rapid blood tests for COVID-19. Should this be the new normal?

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Travel in Canada has been restricted on two fronts.

While the Canadian government has advised against all non-essential travel abroad during the pandemic — i.e. the “travel ban” — the U.S.-Canada border also remains closed. Coupled with similar recommendations in other countries, the protective measures have drained commercial airlines, leading to significant service cuts and layoffs.

The advice from the Canadian government about international travel is exactly that, Hoffman said — advice. Travel abroad is still occurring, but the enforcement of the Quarantine Act has proved as an effective deterrent.

Under the act, Canadians coming back to the country from travelling abroad are legally required to self-isolate for 14 days. Canadians returning from abroad must also have “credible” quarantine plans.

Should they not, travellers are forced to stay at a quarantine facility, such as a hotel.

The rules come with penalities if broken — a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months. Those penalties jump to $1 million and three years in prison should someone jeopardize another’s life while contravening the act.

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Coronavirus: Airport hotels especially quiet these days

“We have to think of it as layers of protection we’ve put on,” said Hoffman. “The more we get good news, the more we can look toward peeling off these layers of protection.”

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Even then, it will be a complicated process, he said.

“For governments, it’s a lot harder to peel off layers of protection than it is to impose them.”

But the public health measures in place now will make peeling back safer and more attainable when the time comes, he said, and the relaxing of border measures could be the first lifted.

“Assuming that the 14-day quarantine order is being well-implemented and enforced, which I understand it is, international travel coming to Canada could almost happen immediately,” he said.

While it may sound “counterintuitive,” Hoffman said the layers of restrictions in place are proving to be protective with little negative “downstream” effect.

READ MORE: WestJet cancels thousands of domestic flights as demand drops

It’s something Canada could look to in the near future, he said, especially with the suffering travel industry in mind.

“So much of whether Canadians do travel abroad is not only based on the advice of their national governments, but also on the availability of flights to the places they want to travel to,” he said.

The downturn in demand for air travel has hit the industry hard.

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Air Canada reported losses of more than $1 billion in the last quarter. Since mid-March, the airline has cut its capacity by more than 90 per cent.

The company predicts it will take at least three years to return to the flight capacity and earnings of 2019, calling it the “darkest period ever in the history of commercial aviation.”

Some governments have moved to protect the flailing industries, such as France.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that the government is “looking carefully” at how to support Canada’s airline industry as the crisis drags on. He said certain sectoral supports were on the horizon for impacted industries. Trudeau said the wage subsidy initiative has already helped “massively.”

WestJet recently announced it saved more than 1,000 pilot jobs through the program.

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Should governments move to loosen advice on travel, it’s unlikely there will be a rush to jump on a plane, said Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. He said a new suite of procedures will need to accompany any return to travel “to give us a certain degree of comfort.”

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Many airlines have already rolled out new measures and safety procedures in a bid to keep customers comforted — requiring flight attendants to wear masks, adjusting boarding processes, and ramping up cleaning duties and disinfectants.

Air Canada announced Monday that it would make temperature checks mandatory for all travellers pre-boarding and require face-coverings for both customers and employees.

The company did not respond to a Global News request for comment before publication.

READ MORE: Coronavirus continues to impact Canadian travel: ‘It’s definitely become more real’

“People do need to travel. We’re a global economy and a global economy requires a certain movement of people, as well as goods,” Janes said.

“There will be pressures and those pressures will grow.”

But too fast too soon isn’t the answer, either, said Hoffman, noting that politics plays a role in this, too.

“There’s no correct way of choosing which layers of protection to pull off and which to keep in place. Canada and places around the world are going to make different decisions,” he said.

“Governments are between a rock and a hard place. These are ultimately decisions of value as opposed to decisions of evidence because the evidence points to a need to maintain quite a few of these layers of protection. But which ones to peel off or to keep? That becomes much harder.”

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— with files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press

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