Billionaire critic of COVID-19 restrictions says Ottawa let her skip 14-day quarantine
Liz Uihlein, two other U.S. execs granted special exemptions for 36-hour business trip to Ontario
A top Donald Trump donor who has publicly campaigned against COVID-19 restrictions was granted a special entry exemption into Canada last month, allowing her to skip the country's mandatory 14-day quarantine for foreign travellers, a CBC News investigation has learned.
Liz Uihlein, the 75-year-old president and CEO of Uline Inc., a Wisconsin-based retailer of shipping, packing and janitorial supplies, flew to Toronto on her private jet on Aug. 25, for what her company calls a "facility visit" to its Milton, Ont., office and warehouse. Uihlein was accompanied by two other senior company executives, Phil Hunt and Glenn Quaiver, on the two-day trip.
Through a spokesperson, Uline insisted that the three Americans were granted formal exemptions from the two-week self-isolation period that has been in place since last March.
Under a federal order-in-council, only four cabinet members — Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Minister of Immigration Marco Mendicino — and Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, have the power to issue such free passes, known as national interest exemptions. When asked by CBC News, none of the departments said they signed off on the three quarantine exemptions, and the company refuses to say who approved their applications.
On Thursday, Blair tweeted that the decision to allow Uline executives in without quarantining was, in fact, made by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers "based on the information provided" and that "entry should not have been provided."
"No special entry exemptions were provided to Uline executives, nor were any national interest exemptions. This was not a political decision," Blair tweeted.
Uihlein, along with her husband, Richard, ranks as the biggest donor to the Republican Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, having given more than $40 million US so far in 2019-20. She has been outspoken in her criticism of the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, complaining that government-mandated shutdowns have been costly and disruptive for business.
"It's overhyped," she told the Guardian newspaper in April. "And I don't wish anybody ill will. You know I don't wish that, but I think it hurts certain ages in certain places and largely in a lot of parts of the world. In the country it's not as rampant as the press would have you make it."
Police called over masking complaint
CBC News has learned that Halton Regional Police officers were sent to the Uline offices in Milton on the morning of Aug. 26 to follow up on a complaint that the American visitors were holding large group meetings where no one was wearing a mask.
Both Halton Region Public Health and the police service refused all comment and interview requests on the matter. Halton has a masking bylaw for businesses, but it only applies to areas where the public comes in contact with employees.
The Uline spokesperson confirmed that police met with Liz Uihlein, saying that no action was taken and that all health rules were followed during the course of her trip.
"After close work with Toronto-based immigration counsel to ensure that the trip was in compliance with all Canadian immigration laws, each of the executives was formally exempted from the quarantine requirement through the proper government channels and processes," the company said in a written statement to CBC News. "The executives fully abided by the terms of their admission."
Ottawa quietly approved hundreds of special exemptions
The federal government has classified a number of jobs as "essential" during the global pandemic and has exempted truck drivers, airline flight crews, health-care professionals, critical infrastructure workers and some technicians from the quarantine rule — all categories that don't appear to apply to the American business executives.
The other way to gain entry to the country — by obtaining a national interest exemption — is cloaked in secrecy, with the various departments asserting that privacy laws preclude them from identifying the individuals who have received one or even the companies they work for.
It is, however, public knowledge that the NHL received hundreds of special entry exemptions for its playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton via Mendicino's office, as did close to 50 Toronto Blue Jays players for their similarly cloistered July training camp at Rogers Centre.
Public Safety Canada said Blair has issued three such exemptions. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said Hajdu has used her power just once for employees of a company that makes ventilators, while Tam has approved five applications from key COVID-19 responders, including a group of "health-care professionals" who would not otherwise be admitted, in August.
Global Affairs Canada, Champagne's department, said he has now granted 53 quarantine exemptions for business mobility and an additional eight for medical reasons or to facilitate international travel.
Federal quarantine regulations allow the four cabinet ministers and Tam to attach additional conditions, like masking and prohibitions on dining out, to quarantine exemptions. But that process is also opaque.
The conditions are supposed to be imposed in consultation with PHAC and the provinces that the individuals are visiting.
However, Ontario's Ministry of Health said that as of the beginning of September, it had been consulted on only two federal "national interest" exemptions and that both were still in the process of being approved.
Jet call sign blocked on flight tracking sites
CBC News was able to retrace the movements of Liz and Richard Uihlein's private jet — a Dassault Falcon 2000EX — even though someone had paid to block out its call sign on flight-tracking websites. The plane took off from an airport in Waukegan, Ill., outside Chicago, early on the morning of Aug. 25, flying to the northern Wisconsin community of Manitowish Waters, where the Uihleins have a summer home. The jet then returned to the Chicago area for a brief pit stop, before making the one-hour flight to Toronto's Pearson International Airport, landing at a VIP private terminal shortly after 10:30 a.m..
Once on the ground, the company said, the three executives were greeted by a CBSA superintendent who examined their documentation. According to department protocol, the trio would have been asked a set of standard screening questions about COVID-19 symptoms and told about the federal requirement that they wear a mask or face covering in public settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
The private jet departed Pearson at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 26, touching down in Waukegan an hour later. In all, the executives' visit to Canada lasted for just a day and a half.
Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, said Canada's mandatory 14-day quarantine has been key to the country's ability to limit the number and spread of COVID-19 cases.
"It's aiming to keep Canadians safe by really minimizing the importation of infections," she said. "You wouldn't want to jeopardize that by allowing people to come into the country and not put some conditions around where they're going and what they're doing, if they must be here in that 14-day period that they could be incubating COVID-19."
Hota said that quarantine exemptions should therefore be limited to truly essential workers, noting that virtually every type of business has adapted to the new reality of remote work, physical distancing and video meetings.
She worries that granting exemptions on other grounds might serve to undermine public confidence in the system — especially since more than a million Canadians who have travelled abroad over the past six months have been obliged to spend 14 days in isolation upon their return.
"It becomes a bit of a slippery slope," Hota said. "I do worry that it might undermine some of the efforts that we have, for people to actually adhere to the public health recommendations that have been put out there."
Wisconsin, where Uline has its corporate headquarters and major distribution centres, reported a record number of COVID-19 diagnoses this past weekend, with 1,582 new cases on Sept. 13 — a worrying trend for a state with a population of 5.86 million. Neighbouring Illinois, where Liz Uihlein and her husband live, has been averaging about 2,000 cases per day among its 12.8 million residents — a stark contrast with Ontario, population 14.75 million, which reported 313 new cases on Monday, 251 on Tuesday and 315 on Wednesday.
Canada's quarantine rules are becoming a flashpoint between Ottawa and the provinces. Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared the system "broken," noting that police in the province had uncovered 622 cases where people had flouted the 14-day rule, but the federal government had declined to charge any of them. (Police can issue fines of up to $1,000 for quarantine breaches, but federal punishments are far stricter, with penalties of up to $750,000 in fines and six months in jail.)
"I need the help from the federal government to make an amendment or change it," Ford told reporters. "Why have our police go around and checking to see if people are quarantining if they aren't going to follow up with a charge?"
Liz Uihlein, who declined interview requests from CBC News, keeps a low public profile, but over the past 40 years, she and her husband have grown a company they founded in their basement into a multinational business with $5.8 billion in revenue and more than 6,500 employees.
The family-run, privately held firm is known for its old-school work culture, with a strict dress code for employees that mandates covered shoulders, shoes with backs and pantyhose between Nov. 1 and April 30 for women, along with shirts and ties for men. Denim and cords are outlawed, even on casual Fridays, and tattoos must remain covered at all times.
A Republican 'mega-donor' and vocal shutdown critic
Away from the office, the Uihleins, who have an estimated net worth of about $4 billion, have become quiet power brokers, donating more than $100 million to Republican candidates over the past decade. In 2018, the New York Times published a profile that declared them to be "the most powerful conservative couple you've never heard of."
WATCH | U.S. executives granted exemption from COVID-19 quarantine rules:
Donald Trump named Liz Uihlein to his economic policy council when he was running for office in 2016. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence paid a campaign-style visit to their Wisconsin headquarters in the fall of 2019 to crow about the administration's success in renegotiating NAFTA. And this past spring, the White House listed Liz Uihlein as a participant in a call between business executives and Trump about the country's coronavirus response.
"When you think of big mega-donors, the names that first pop into people's minds are people like George Soros on the left and [Sheldon] Adelson is on the right. People who tend to be the focus of media hits by the opposing side or people who just tend to be in the limelight," said Brendan Quinn of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., an organization that tracks the flow of money in U.S. politics.
"There are other donors who like to keep a lower profile, like the Uihleins. They like to not draw as much attention, even though they are making these huge, huge, influential contributions."
However, Liz Uihlein has been vocal when it comes to her thoughts on the coronavirus. In mid-March, she sent a mass email to legislators in Illinois with the subject line "The Media is Overblowing COVID-19," complaining about the state-wide lockdown.
"While you may think the government enforced closing of events, schools, etc. is helping prevent the spread of this infection, you are impacting local, state and national economies and adding unnecessary panic and fear in the American people," it read. "At what point do we go back to our normal lives? This has been a huge disruption."
She has also been critical of Wisconsin's COVID-19 restrictions, which forced much of her office staff to stay at home for weeks, although call-centre workers remained on duty, designated as "essential" workers.
Things that used to take "five minutes to get done at the office [now] take two days," she told the Guardian in April.
- This story has been updated from a previous version that stated none of the federal departments will admit to signing off on a national interest exemption. On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair clarified that the decision to grant the executives an exemption from quarantining was, in fact, made by officers of the Canada Border Services Agency, an agency overseen by Public Safety, and was not a political decision.Sep 17, 2020 5:03 PM ET