Despite countless travel warnings from health and government officials, Canadians are still jet-setting across the world during a deadly pandemic.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday announced new travel restrictions — including a mandatory 3-day hotel quarantine on the travellers’ dime — in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Trudeau has cautioned Canadians against non-essential travel for months amid rising coronavirus cases and new variants that have emerged from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
“With the challenges we currently face with COVID-19, both here at home and abroad, we all agree that now is just not the time to be flying,” Trudeau said.
“By putting in place these tough measures now, we can look forward to a better time, when we can all plan those vacations.”
The move on restricting travel comes more than a year after the first case of COVID-19 was first discovered in Canada. Despite the restrictions and warnings, Canadians, including dozens of politicians, have continued to make trips abroad.
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‘It was crazy busy in Cancun’
Ana Marshall, who lives in Toronto, said because it’s just a recommendation not to travel and not a full ban, she recently vacationed in Cancun, Mexico during the holidays with her family.
“I go about once a year to Mexico. I thought a lot about whether I should go this year, I had reservations … but checked the coronavirus numbers before I left and the infection rate was not high,” she said.
But once she arrived in Cancun, she said she had second thoughts.
“It was crazy busy in Cancun, the airport was full … the hotel was full. There weren’t a lot of Canadians at the hotel, but a lot of Americans. I started to think it was a big mistake,” Marshall said.
Despite the crowds, she wanted to still make the most of it. Her family tried to be as safe as possible, they kept their distance from others and were able to enjoy the sunshine at the beach, she said.
“But no one was wearing a mask. There were so many people in the hotel pool. At some point, I thought, ‘this is crazy’, as no one knew each other but everyone was gathering around and giving each other cheers with their drinks and dancing. There was no social distancing.”
Marshall said they flew back to Canada before the government implemented mandatory testing.
As of Jan. 7, Canadians need to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their scheduled departure and must show the results to their airline before they board their flight.
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Her family did the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they got back and she said her daughter needed to take a COVID-19 test in order to go back to work. It came back negative.
“I do feel guilty about going, but we were very careful and tried to be safe the whole time,” she said.
Marshall plans on going to see her family in Chile in the next few months but said if Trudeau imposes harsher travel restriction she’ll cancel her plans and stay home.
The right to freedom of movement vs. health risks
Currently, the right to freedom of movement is sanctioned in Section 6 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.”
So vacationing in Mexico may be frowned upon, but it’s not illegal.
“For Canadians, we have a charter right to enter and leave Canada and also to move around from province to province to live and work,” University of Ottawa law professor Martha Jackman told Global News on Jan. 7.
“Any restrictions that are imposed on that mobility is subject to charter review and would have to be justified as a reasonable limit on Canadians’ charter rights.”
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, argued that just because travelling is not banned, does not mean Canadians should do it.
“There are direct and indirect health risks involved,” Furness said. “The world is very dangerous right now, and there are other variants we don’t know much about.”
But he argued that countries such as Mexico may not have the testing capacity, meaning there could be dangerous variants of the coronavirus there that we don’t know about yet.
“It’s like walking into a dark room with knives in it. It’s a terrible idea, and an extremely foolish thing to do.”
Not only are people who travel endangering their own lives, he said, but also others around them.
“Every time a plane lands in Toronto, we are increasing the chance of spreading the virus to people who do not have the ability to protect themselves,” he said.
A Canadian stuck abroad
Canadian Jennifer Johnson, 39, is currently in Dubai with her husband and 12-year-old son.
However, unlike other Canadians who decided to travel during COVID-19, Johnson was already half-way across the world when the pandemic hit. She’s been living out of a suitcase for more than a year.
In September 2019, her husband, who works in oil and gas, was offered a contract in Turkmenistan. They sold their house in Halifax, but because of visa complications, Johnson and her son weren’t able to join her husband in Turkmenistan. So they decided to travel the world instead.
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“We were in India when coronavirus was still only in China. I remember thinking I should probably get somewhere comfortable. So on March 12, we boarded a flight to Sri Lanka. We were one of the last ones to get into Sri Lanka before it closed its borders,” Johnson said.
And when they arrived the country went into full lockdown.
“It was a severe lockdown, we could not leave our house and no one was even allowed on the highway,” she said.
However, in July restrictions started to slowly loosen, and she said she and her son were eventually able to go out and travel the country a bit more.
In August, Johnson’s Sri Lankan visa was set to expire so she had to find another place to live. She still was not able to see her husband but wanted to be close by the country.
“We needed to find a country that was affordable and a country that also was open to travellers, so we (temporarily) moved to Turkey,” she said.
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After a few months, she said she was able to reunite with her husband and when their visa ran out in Turkey, on Jan. 8, they decided to head to Dubai.
Although she plans on staying there for a few months more, she said her family in Canada has voiced concern for her safety.
“My family is all in Quebec, and if I wanted to go home, they would be fine with me staying there … but I don’t want to go back to Canada. There’s just so much to see.”
‘I never felt unsafe’
Despite testing and quarantine rules, it seems some Canadians are still eager to travel abroad.
Danielle, a 30-year-old woman living just outside of Toronto recently returned from a trip to the Bahamas and told Global News of plans to also travel to the U.S.
Global News did not publish Danielle’s last name on a request to maintain anonymity.
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“I kept getting invited by my American friends to go on trips, but it was in the summer and I didn’t know if it was safe yet, so decided to wait and see,” she said.
But after weighing her options for a few months, Danielle said she decided to go to Cabo and the Bahamas during the holidays with some friends.
“I am young, healthy and I felt OK doing it because we were staying in a house and not a resort,” she said. “I never felt unsafe.”
Next on her list was heading to Florida to see some friends.
“It doesn’t fully bother me because I’m not scared of COVID myself … but with respect to the elderly, I would not come home and go straight to see my grandmother.”
— With files from Global News’ Erica Alini and Saba Aziz
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