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Canada's 'broken' quarantine hotel booking system means family could face a hefty fine

A Burlington, Ont. father has been calling the designated government phone line to secure a hotel booking for his daughter, who is returning to Canada. But he can't get through, and worries she'll end up paying a hefty fine.

Border officers will have discretion on fines, says minister

Most air passengers coming into Canada are now required to quarantine in a hotel designated by the federal government for up to three days. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A Burlington, Ont. father says he's been calling the federal government hotline since Friday to book a quarantine hotel for his daughter, who is flying home from Australia. But he just can't get through. 

Dave Buttrum says he was placed on hold five times over the weekend, and was disconnected each time after the three-hour mark. As of Tuesday, he hasn't had any luck. Now he's worried his daughter may face a hefty fine for violating the government's Quarantine Act.

The government's hotel quarantine plan for air travellers, he said, has been "absolute nonsense."

"I can't figure out how you're supposed to comply with a system if it's broken," he said in an interview with Ontario Today on Monday. 

Other travellers across the country are also experiencing these bogged down phone lines, and worry they won't be able to secure a room before boarding their flight.

As of Monday, most people travelling into Canada by air have to pre-book a stay at a hotel to start their quarantine. The bookings must be at hotels on a government-approved list, and the stay is up to three days.

Travellers also have to make their booking through a government phone line. There is no online option.

Buttrum's daughter has been in Australia on a travel visa since January 2020. She returns at the end of this week since her health insurance has run out.

While the Pubic Health Agency of Canada has said people should only call the booking number if their flight is scheduled within the next 48 hours, Buttrum says he's reluctant to wait given the delays he's experiencing now. 

"Do I take the chance that she gets denied boarding?" he said, noting there's also the risk that his daughter could also be fined. 

"It's an exercise in utter frustration. They've implemented this system. They haven't put the right resources or thought into it, and it's absolutely not functional." 

covid-19 measure for entering canada by air (CBC)

The Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC News that the maximum penalties for breaking the Quarantine Act include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or six months in prison. 

Discretion on fines

During a COVID-19 update on Tuesday, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc said it would be up to the discretion of officers with the Canada Border Services Agency on whether or not to charge people who have made the attempts, but could not reach someone to book a hotel room. 

LeBlanc said he expects discretion to be used intelligently, but also for Canadians to take the necessary measures prior to their arrival. 

Buttrum said there's no issue with wanting to comply or with meeting the mandated 14-day quarantine.

He said he understands the federal government's intent, but doesn't necessarily agree with the hotel quarantine, especially in light of the issues with implementing it. 

"I hope that she can get through," Buttrum said.

He also added the government shouldn't be "penalizing Canadians" who are trying to get home. 

He said his daughter booked multiple flights home over the past few months, which fell through three times as portions of her route back to Canada were cancelled by the airlines. Earlier in the pandemic, flights were costing thousands of dollars, he said, even nearing $9,000 at one point. 

Since his daughter was in a safe zone, he said, it was a better decision to stay there. 

CBC News reached out to Buttrum's local MP Pam Damoff (Oakville-North Burlington) about advice for other Burlington residents, but was told to speak with the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

An email from a spokesperson in her office to Buttrum says the centre received over 27,000 calls daily over the weekend. It added additional operators to answer questions, as well as agents to book hotels.

"These wait times are expected to come down over the next week, however demand remains high," the spokesperson wrote.

"At this point you and your daughter should continue to call until you can get through. To ease the load they're asking for everyone to wait until 48 hours before their flights, but I understand the stress to get it booked as soon as possible."

The hotel is responsible for transporting travellers from the airport, and providing them with three nights that meet the Public Health Agency of Canada requirements, as well as necessities including meals, telephone and Wi-Fi. 

It also has to report information about the person's check-in, check-out, and their compliance with the Quarantine Act. 

Here are the phone lines for the hotel room booking system. They are open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, seven days a week: 1-800-294-8253 (toll-free within North America) or 1-613-830-2992 (collect outside of North America)  

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