Much of Canada is undergoing a reopening process after months in lockdown. With cases of the novel coronavirus declining, many are embracing the possibility of sitting on a patio or getting a haircut.
But one element of the lockdown has remained stiffly in place — travel guidelines for Canadians.
The federal government still emphasizes that all non-essential travel outside of Canada must be avoided. They’ve made it clear on their website that people deciding to travel during the pandemic could not only put themselves and others at risk for being infected with COVID-19, it could also result in them becoming stranded.
“If you choose to travel despite these advisories, be aware that commercial airspace closures and movement restrictions can occur without warning and prevent your return to Canada,” they state.
There will be no additional facilitated flights organized by the government to bring home Canadians who decided to fly out of the country, they state. They also warn that travellers may have difficulty accessing essential services, may face movement restrictions and quarantine, and that insurance may not cover any medical expenses.
Only limited consular services will be available, they add.
With many curious about the possibility of flying now that activities available to Canadians are being expanded across the country, Global News posed some common travel questions to health experts.
Is it safe to book flights again?
Despite reopening procedures within the country, getting on a plane is a different environment — and it’s not an option that’s recommended, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
“I can’t imagine getting on a plane anytime soon,” he said. “And I would never advise anyone to get on a plane, anytime soon.”
Furness says there are two primary reasons why he firmly does not recommend air travel right now. Your risk of getting COVID-19 is proportional to how close you are to someone who is infected, and the length of time you are near that person, he said.
“The thing about an airplane (is) you’ve got tons of both,” he said. Sitting next to someone for hours is dangerous and passengers could be asymptomatic, he said. This means even if passengers are screened for symptoms, you are still at risk of infection.
Furness also questions whether airlines can deliver what they are promising in terms of safety standards. Airlines are a business, he says, wondering how they can operate at a loss by significantly reducing the number of people on planes.
Flights have been cut or suspended by most airlines, including Canadian companies like Porter Airlines, which now says they will resume operations on July 29 — one month after they said they’d initially start flying again. When they do resume, their policies will reflect public health recommendations, they state.
But some airlines that are operating have implemented detailed safety standards. Air Canada announced their CleanCare+ program last month, which includes a temperature check and health screening before the flight, all customers are required to wear masks and surfaces are cleaned with a “hospital grade” disinfectant, they state on their website.
From May 15 to June 30 they are also blocking every adjacent seat in the economy cabin.
Zahid Butt, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in infectious disease epidemiology, says it’s still important to avoid all non-essential travel, and if you have to travel, you need to follow public health guidelines at the airport which includes using hand sanitizer, washing hands and practising physical distancing.
“When you’re inside the aircraft, try to have at least a face mask so that your droplets don’t spread to another person,” he said. It’s likely mandatory on these flights, he added.
Even with the middle seat empty, the distance from the next person in your row, as well as the person in front of or behind you, is less than six feet, he said.
What should I do about refunds or cancellations?
Major Canadian airlines are offering different options when it comes to refunds and cancellations.
Air Transat flights are suspended until July 23 and they state on their website that travel credits will be granted automatically for 24 months after customers’ flights were cancelled.
Airlines like WestJet have also suspended international travel routes until June 25 and they are also offering a two-year travel credit for any cancelled flights or vacation packages.
Air Canada introduced expanded booking offerings at the end of May following public criticism for providing a travel credit to customers for cancelled flights, rather than a refund, Global News reported.
Until June 30, passengers can make a one-time change with no fees to all new or existing bookings between March 1, 2020, until June 20, 2021. They state on their website that customers who purchased a refundable ticket will be able to get a refund, but those with non-refundable tickets will only be eligible for a credit.
The airline still plans to fly to 100 destinations this summer, including the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and South America.
As for Sunwing, the airline has suspended all southbound flights until June 25. Travel credits valid until June 2022 are available for those who booked flights or vacation packages between March 17 and June 25.
What do I need to know about flexible bookings?
Full refunds are difficult to find right now and most airlines are providing travel credits, Global News reported previously.
But these travel credits could come at financial risk for passengers, said Gábor Lukács, an air passenger rights advocate.
Customers need to be wary of fare increases when rebooking, he told Global News in a previous report. Airlines are waiving rebooking fees but customers are being left to cover cost differences out of pocket, if the fares have increased, he said.
“You will not get a flight to New York City in September for the price you paid in February,” Lukács said via email.
To raise costs of flights for passengers rebooking would be a violation of Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations if their flights were cancelled by the airline.
If the airline files for insolvency, it’s currently unclear what would happen to customer’s travel vouchers, said Lukács.
Lukács says customers should be getting refunds instead of vouchers, even if they bought a non-refundable ticket.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has mentioned that Canadians are concerned about being given travel credits that ultimately they may not want to use, even within the next two years.
“I think we need to have some very careful discussions with airlines, with the air travel sector and, indeed, with Canadians … to try and figure out a way forward where we can ensure that Canadians are treated fairly and our airline industry remains there for when our economy picks up again,” the prime minister said last month.
“We will work with airlines and with Canadians who are concerned with finding solutions.”
When can I cross the U.S. border?
The government’s official travel advice for heading to the U.S. is that all non-essential travel — to any country — needs to be avoided.
The Canada-U.S. land border remains closed for non-essential travellers. However, Canadians can technically still fly to the U.S. as long as they haven’t recently been to China, Brazil, the European Schengen area (which includes Finland, Germany and Spain, among 26 countries), the United Kingdom or Ireland.
The U.S. has more than two million confirmed cases of COVID-19, while Canada is nearing 100,000 cases. Some states are seeing surges following reopening. Travel insurance may be difficult to acquire as the official government recommendation is no non-essential travel, to any country, according to a previous Global News report.
Should I be travelling to other provinces?
With international travel not being an option for most Canadians, some wonder if they should take a short flight or a car ride to another province for vacation.
Several provinces and territories have already implemented travel restrictions for those who are not residents of that region. Furness said problems can arise when travel is done between provinces and an individual doesn’t isolate.
B.C. still recommends that all non-essential travel beyond the B.C.-Alberta border be avoided. The province’s borders to the Yukon and Northwest Territories are also restricted to essential travel only and some highways are closed.
Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario do not have provincial travel bans. All three provinces, however, are advising against non-essential travel.
Quebec has begun to loosen some travel restrictions that were implemented earlier in the pandemic. In April, checkpoints were created to bar travellers from too much mobility if they weren’t travelling for essential reasons. By May, most of Quebec has opened back up again but some areas are still restricted including the Cree territory of James Bay.
Some provinces are imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travellers coming from other parts of Canada. Nova Scotia and Manitoba have both implemented these orders.
And even stricter regulations are in place in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, only residents of the province can enter along with those who have extenuating circumstances. New Brunswick is prohibiting all non-essential travel and the province is screening all who enter and enforcing a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Prince Edward Island is also barring all non-essential travel and anyone attempting to enter the province for non-essential reasons can be turned away, or be told to leave immediately if they are found to be there for the wrong reasons.
New Brunswick has tied a new swath of cases to a doctor they claimed traveled to Quebec and did not isolate upon return to the province. However, that doctor disputes their claims and is seeking an apology from New Brunswick, saying everyone he initially came into contact with has tested negative for the virus.
In terms of safety in general, Furness said the safety measures in place for summer are allowing Canadians to engage in “irresponsible” behaviour, including travelling between provinces.
That will change in the fall when a second wave emerges, he said.
“What brakes can we put on this and really prime people’s expectations? We may really, really need to stop travel very suddenly in October,” he said.
It should be made clear that while some inter-provincial travel may be allowed now in some cases, there could be a serious uptick in cases in the fall and serious restrictions may need to be implemented again, he said.
“If we have to stop some things from happening, travel is very high on my list,” he said. “I don’t want to close schools so people can go on vacation.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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