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Coronavirus: Lifting Canada’s border closure still too risky, Trudeau says

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says Canada-U.S. border measures extended to July 21
WATCH: Trudeau says Canada-U.S. border measures extended to July 21.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said Canada is not in a rush to open its borders “too quickly,” as doing so may spark a second wave of coronavirus cases.

Speaking to the media on Monday, he said he understands the border closures are frustrating, but “if we take steps too quickly, if we are not sure of what we’re doing at each stage, we risk hitting a second wave … and having to close our economy again.”

READ MORE: Questions raised by Canada U.S. land-border closures as citizens fly into the U.S.

Trudeau said he would “like to see a return to international travel so we can get people coming and supporting our local communities and seeing business travel pick up again.”

He added that before that happens, “we need to make sure we are keeping Canadians safe.”

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In March, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Canada closed its land border with the U.S. and many airports to international flights. That means that with the exception of immediate family, Canada currently restricts all foreigners from visiting the country for non-essential travel.

Earlier this month, Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu and a major tourism industry group urged the government to lift travel restrictions.

Cross border couple upset they’ll remain separated under border closure extension
Cross border couple upset they’ll remain separated under border closure extension

“We know that reopening too quickly or carelessly would lead us to a resurgence that might force us to go back into lockdown, to shut down the economy once again … we are going to be very careful about when and how we start reopening international borders,” he said.

Although the Canada-U.S. land border remains closed until at least July 21, Canadians can still technically fly into the U.S. as long as they have not recently been to China, Brazil, the United Kingdom or parts of Europe.

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The government of Canada still emphasizes that all non-essential travel outside of Canada must be avoided. The government has made it clear on its website that people deciding to travel during the pandemic could not only put themselves and others at risk of being infected with the novel coronavirus, it could also result in them becoming stranded.

Rovinescu’s comments were echoed on Monday by several representatives from the major Canadian airlines who appeared before the House of Commons health committee studying the pandemic response.

The witnesses from Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet all pointed repeatedly to the financial difficulties they are facing as a result of having to ground the majority of their fleets due to a roughly 95 per cent year-over-year drop in flight bookings.

Border restrictions and quarantine periods are among the factors making people even more hesitant to book travel, the airline industry witnesses said, who all raised the idea of “travel corridors” being allowed between Canada and countries where the pandemic curve is flattening.

The witnesses added that particular attention should be paid to travel restrictions for Canadians travelling between provinces — namely, making sure requirements for a two-week quarantine are uniform across the country.

Some provinces have quarantine requirements for interprovincial travellers while others do not.

Anyone entering the country from abroad, however, must quarantine.

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“The 14-day quarantine is a challenging component of the industry restart,” said Jared Mikoch-Gerke, manager of aviation security at WestJet.

“I think for the first thing what we want to look towards is national consistency.”

Howard Liebman, senior director of government and community relations for Air Transat, said the airline industry is hurting and it would be unreasonable to expect them to keep commercial operations on pause until there’s a coronavirus vaccine.

READ MORE: Montreal tourism industry wants consistency on interprovincial travel

“We want to be clear — we don’t think we can wait years until there is a widely available vaccine to get back in the air,” he said.

However, the representatives did not commit to maintaining social distancing measures on board until a vaccine or treatment is available, with Mikoch-Gerke suggesting that’s not financially feasible.

He said that in order to break even, airlines need to have roughly 77 per cent of seats filled.

But social distancing measures like leaving middle seats empty would reduce capacity to around 62 per cent and make it impossible for the airlines to break even.

Jim Chung, medical advisor to Air Canada, acknowledged when asked about the risk of infections being brought into the country by travellers not required to quarantine that “it’s not going to be zero.”

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“I sense that there is a false belief that COVID-19 will be eradicated with current measures,” he said.

“It will not. Our goal should be reopening the economy while implementing measures to limit the spread.”

Still, all three defended their controversial handling of the decision not to issue refunds to all travellers whose flights were cancelled because of the pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreak: Why won’t airlines give me my money back?
Coronavirus outbreak: Why won’t airlines give me my money back?

All of them have come under intense scrutiny for refusing to refund all tickets, claiming that exceptional circumstances make it impossible for them to do so and that travel vouchers are good enough.

“That was also a question asked of our CEO at our quarterly results announcement last week,” Liebman said during several segments of questioning specifically about the lack of refunds to passengers.

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“There’s no industry that can go without operating for three months and still meet all of our obligations.”

Mikoche-Gerke said WestJet doesn’t anticipate a return to normal travel levels for about three years.

Coronavirus outbreak: Questions raised by Canada U.S border-land closures as citizens fly in the U.S.
Coronavirus outbreak: Questions raised by Canada U.S border-land closures as citizens fly in the U.S.

— With files from Global News’ Olivia Bowden and Reuters