British Columbia·Video

B.C. premier concerned about Americans using 'Alaska loophole' to visit province

Despite Canada’s borders being closed to non-essential travel, some British Columbians continue to see American licence plates in their communities, stoking fears of a potential spread of COVID-19 from the U.S., where case numbers are surging.

Premier John Horgan says he's heard many stories of non-essential visitors enjoying B.C.'s 'sights and sounds'

Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, ever since border closures took effect March 21. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Premier John Horgan turned to a board game metaphor Thursday when asked about Americans apparently playing around with the so-called "Alaska loophole" to visit B.C. despite strict border rules.

"Do not pass go. Go directly to Alaska," Horgan said, referencing the game of Monopoly, during a news conference about a hospital expansion in Richmond.

Canada's borders were closed to most travellers on March 21, but Americans travelling for non-discretionary purposes, such as returning home to Alaska, have been granted permission to enter Canada.

These Americans must travel along a direct path. When they need to stop, they must maintain distance from the public as much as possible, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Horgan, however, said he has heard from communities across the province that are concerned some travellers are not following this guidance.

Premier Horgan, seen here in June, said Thursday that keeping the Canada-U.S. border closed is important to safeguard B.C.'s progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, especially as the U.S. sees surging case numbers. (MIke McArthur/CBC)

He said the chief of Pacheedaht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island told him licence plates from California and Texas have been spotted in the community.

"If you're heading to Alaska, you don't go through Port Renfrew," Horgan said.

"You shouldn't be stopping along the way to enjoy the sights and sounds of British Columbia. That's not part of the plan."

Horgan said he has raised the issue with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and reiterated his desire for the U.S.-Canada border to stay closed for the foreseeable future.

'They're not taking these quarantining measures seriously'

Cameron Barker-Fyfe is one B.C. resident concerned some Americans may not be abiding by the rules.

Barker-Fyfe has been staying at the Westin Bayshore hotel in downtown Vancouver while he sells his condo in the city.

He said he overheard a conversation on Tuesday night between the front desk clerk and an American couple who said they had just driven from Seattle and wanted to check in.

The CBSA says border crossings into Canada are down by about 86 per cent in June. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

He says he asked the couple whether they had quarantined for 14 days — as per orders from both provincial and federal governments — to which the couple replied no, adding they hadn't been given any information about COVID-19 or quarantine restrictions while at the border.

The hotel eventually turned the couple away, says Barker-Fyfe, but it raised concerns that this isn't a one-time occurrence.

"Our best defence [to the virus spreading from the U.S.] is keeping our border closed," he said.

"So, I'm at a loss to understand why we're seeing people continually being able to cross into Canada and it's not for the right reasons. And if they do get in, they're not taking these quarantining measures seriously."

But Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday she has been told by the CBSA and others that the majority of people seen driving around with U.S. license plates are Canadians living in the U.S. who have returned home in recent months.

She said she has heard stories of people exploiting the "Alaska loophole" but in very small numbers.

Watch | Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks to fears that U.S. travellers could be endangering B.C.'s progress on containing the spread of the coronavirus: 

B.C's provincial health officer says most American licence plates belong to Canadians citizens who have returned home. 1:28

The Alaska loophole

If a U.S. citizen is allowed entry with Alaska as their intended destination, the CBSA says they are given a Public Health Agency of Canada handout, which instructs the traveller not to make any unnecessary stops and avoid contact with others en route.

"Should an officer have any doubts with regards to the traveller's intended purpose, they will require the traveller to prove/substantiate their purpose of travel," the CBSA said in a statement to CBC News.

Such travellers are also advised to:

  • Remain in the vehicle as much as possible.
  • Avoid staying at a hotel.
  • Pay at the pump if they need gas.
  • Use a drive-thru if they need food.
  • Use a mask and be mindful of physical distancing and good hygiene practices if they need to use a rest area.

Yukon gives Alaskans a 24-hour limit to travel through the territory, but neither B.C. nor the federal government has a similar requirement.

Penalties for providing false information at the border include being denied entry and a ban on entering Canada.

Strict penalties are also in place for any traveller who fails to comply with border restrictions under the Quarantine Act, such as self-isolation, including a fine of up to $750,000 fines or six months imprisonment.

Those penalties jump to a $1-million fine and up to three years imprisonment if travellers' actions result in risk of death or serious harm to someone else.

If a traveller is caught breaking COVID-19 restrictions under the Quarantine Act, they could face financial penalties and even imprisonment, according to the CBSA. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Border travel is down

Border travel has, unsurprisingly, seen a huge decline.

During the week of June 15-21, the CBSA says border crossings were down across Canada by 86 per cent via land and 96 per cent at airports compared to the same time a year ago.

The CBSA says these numbers are consistent with previous weeks.

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