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Traffic heavy as Atlantic provinces lift travel restrictions within region

Click to play video 'Atlantic bubble opens up for local travel' Atlantic bubble opens up for local travel
WATCH: The Atlantic provinces now have a regional travel bubble allowing residents of each of the four Atlantic provinces to travel freely across borders without self-isolating. Jesse Thomas reports.

Soon after the four Atlantic provinces lifted travel restrictions within the region early Friday, heavy cross-border traffic was reported across the Maritimes.

Residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island can now travel to any of the other three provinces without self-isolating for 14 days after arriving – a change that has created a so-called Atlantic bubble.

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Video footage from the Confederation Bridge showed a steady stream of vehicles heading to P.E.I. after midnight when the restrictions were lifted.

In the morning, photos shared on social media showed P.E.I. Premier Dennis King greeting travellers at the toll booths on the P.E.I. side of the bridge, where tourists were also being offered potato bags holding a selection of Island products.

A P.E.I. Health Department spokesperson said the province received 5,200 applications for entry – a requirement under the Island’s rules – for the first three days of the bubble.

And images taken at the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick showed long lines of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles.

Click to play video 'Confederation Bridge sees long lines after opening Atlantic travel' Confederation Bridge sees long lines after opening Atlantic travel
Confederation Bridge sees long lines after opening Atlantic travel

The lineup to get into Nova Scotia at 8 a.m. was holding up traffic for about 15 minutes, but once at the front of the line the screening process took less than a minute to complete. No application is required.

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Typically about 3,000 vehicles enter Nova Scotia from New Brunswick every day, but that number was reached well before noon on Friday.

“Our border was backed up for several kilometres,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said.

“People are going through the Maritimes, anxious to see loved ones and keen to play tourists …. Opening up the Atlantic region is good for our economy and it will help us gain confidence as we learn to live with COVID.”

However, the premier also said he was concerned by increasing chatter on social media about vehicles from outside the region – including those with American plates – entering the province.

“We want to make sure that we’re capturing anyone who is from outside the Atlantic bubble so that we can communicate to them directly,” McNeil said.

READ MORE: Here’s what you’ll need to do to enter each province in the Atlantic bubble

Anyone who lives outside the Atlantic region must isolate themselves for 14 days once they arrive in one of the four provinces – and that includes Atlantic Canadians travelling from outside the region.

McNeil said Nova Scotians’ growing concerns about people coming from the United States has prompted his government to ramp up its efforts to keep track of those entering the province who are not from another part of Atlantic Canada.

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“Your health is our top priority, but we need to open up,” McNeil told a news conference, adding that restrictions will return if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases.

“This weekend, when you see visitors from Atlantic Canada, don’t forget, they are nervous, too. They haven’t left their province in almost four months …. So, get out there. Say hi to a tourist. Thank them for coming. Do it in a Nova Scotia way – with a smile. If you’re wearing your mask, give them a wave and do it from a distance.”

Meanwhile, the lineup for those heading from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick stretched for several kilometres in the morning.

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“Traffic is very heavy today, as expected,” a New Brunswick official said in a brief statement.

“Officers are working hard to welcome travellers efficiently, making adjustments as they go. They were pleased to note that an increasing number of travellers have printed and filled out their roadside questionnaire before arriving at the border, which helped save time.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Atlantic bubble ‘great first step’ for movement of residents, economic opportunities, McNeil says' Coronavirus: Atlantic bubble ‘great first step’ for movement of residents, economic opportunities, McNeil says
Coronavirus: Atlantic bubble ‘great first step’ for movement of residents, economic opportunities, McNeil says

The premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have hinted restrictions could soon be lifted for visitors from the rest of Canada if all goes well. McNeil said that could happen as early as next week.

Some residents have criticized the so-called “Atlantic bubble” over fears the novel coronavirus could re-emerge in the region, but health officials are encouraging people to trust the science behind the decision and keep following health measures.

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Marine Atlantic, which operates the ferry between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, says it’s received 3,000 bookings since the plan was announced. The company says it will gradually increase passenger capacity over several weeks.

READ MORE: Travel bubble coming to Atlantic Canada July 3

The Crown corporation reported that 140 passengers arrived in Port aux Basques, N.L., after the Atlantic bubble opened.

Another vessel with 104 passengers aboard was scheduled to arrive at 6 p.m. Friday, Marine Atlantic said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2020.