New Brunswick

Vehicles will get waved through border checks if lines too long, says Public Safety minister

Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart says he's looking for ways to improve the Atlantic bubble border screening process, but if traffic gets backed up at checkpoints again this weekend, he has instructed staff to wave vehicles through again until the lineups become manageable.

Carl Urquhart has instructed staff to keep traffic backups 'manageable'

Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart said the province wants to make the border experience as easy as possible for travellers. (CBC)

Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart says he's looking for ways to improve the Atlantic bubble border screening process, but if traffic gets backed up at checkpoints again this weekend, he has instructed staff to wave vehicles through again until the lineups become manageable.

"It's not something that you want to do, but it's something that you've got two options," he said. "Do you leave … the lineups, or do you move them through?"

If a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, the government would try to notify everyone who didn't get registered by using social media and other outlets, Urquhart said.

Last Friday, the first day of the Atlantic bubble, vehicles from Nova Scotia were waved through at Aulac without any of the planned COVID-19 screening or collection of traveller details that could be used for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak.

In fact, about 10 per cent of all vehicles that entered the province between Friday and Monday entered at Aulac without processing — 5,665, according to the premier's office.

Public Safety officials said at the time that traffic congestion represented a safety concern.

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On Tuesday, Urquhart said it wasn't a "dangerous situation."

But the lineup was "outweighing what we felt at the time we should do to the people."

He underestimated both the volume of traffic and the tolerance of motorists, he said.

It was his decision to forego screening until the lineups became "manageable again," after discussing the matter with Public Health.

"They understood it had to be done," he said. "And they felt that was quite doable."

Last Friday afternoon, the government decided to forego screening at the Aulac border crossing because traffic congestion represented a safety concern, according to the Department of Public Safety. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

The four Atlantic provinces have opened up their borders to each other, allowing people to travel within the region for non-essential reasons without having to self-isolate for 14 days after crossing a provincial boundary.

New Brunswick has had checkpoints at its Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Quebec borders since March 25. The Atlantic bubble was portrayed as a big step in recovery after much of the economy was shut down because of the coronavirus.

For the bubble, New Brunswick's plan was to ask for proof of Atlantic residency, a filled-out health questionnaire from each vehicle, and traveller contact information.

Urquhart acknowledged Tuesday the importance of screening people coming into the province.

"We don't want to lose sight of the big picture. We are still in a pandemic and New Brunswick has done very good on controlling the situation when there is a breakout," he said.

Need to balance objectives

But "you get to a point you've got to balance your objective and the objective was to keep people safe. And at the same time, we are in the Atlantic bubble."

"If I had said, 'Look it's a health issue … we're leaving [the Aulac checkpoint] the way it is and the lineup will work its way through,' the risk is about the same," said Urquhart. "It's just a decision that we felt that we can, by opening it up, the risk is not as bad and we wanted to get the people moving."

Urquhart said plans to talk to Public Health about possibly cutting back on the number of questions officers need to ask when it's busy.

"We just want to make the experience as easy as we can."

Risk is 'very low'

The province's chief medical officer of health did not respond to questions about what Public Health is doing now that border protocol has been broken.

"We understand that over the weekend with the implementation of the Atlantic Bubble there was an influx of vehicles and some exceptions were made to ensure traffic safety," Dr. Jennifer Russell said in an emailed statement.

"While the risk in this region is very low, Atlantic Canadians should be self-monitoring at all times, including on vacation, and should call 811 or their primary health-care provider should symptoms occur."

'Not a good thing'

An epidemiologist says failing to gather that information for the vehicles waved through at Aulac was "not a good thing."

"The price of having a bubble of multiple provinces is diligence," said Raywat Deonandan, an associate professor with the faculty of health sciences at the University of Ottawa.

"We're in a strange new time in history where we don't really know how things will really unfold and what exactly to do, so it behooves us to do things carefully and to collect information," he said.

Raywat Deonandan, an Ottawa-based epidemiologist, said having online pre-registration and dedicated lanes for trucks and essential workers should help alleviate congestion at the border checkpoints. (Submitted by Raywat Deonandan)

"Anything that compromises our ability to have clean information about who is present, when they came out, what the situation was, potentially compromises our Public Health response."

Another possible "danger" of simply waving people through, said Deonandan, is that someone from outside of the four Atlantic provinces could get "smuggled in."

"You don't want a traveller from the U.S., for example, having free access to your clean bubble because it represents a potential infection threat," he said.

Long waits may become the norm

The decision to wave vehicles through "probably won't result in anything bad," according to Deonandan.

But if an outbreak occurs, officials need to know why and how and where and who and when. "That's what it comes down to."

"It's a tough thing for a lot of people to understand — 'Why am I stuck at the border? I don't have this disease and you know it's so rare in this province anyway, why must I wait?'"

He said he understands people have a psychological need to keep moving and that means border officials may be faced with tempers, but multiple-hour waits are not unusual at international borders.

"So that will probably become the norm here for a while as well. And that's just the way it has to be."

Technology solution coming soon

The Department of Public Safety will launch in the coming days days a "technology-enabled solution" to the traffic problems, said a spokesperson.

It will "help speed up traffic flow," said Coreen Enos.

She did not provide any other details but did reveal a clue.

"Until the new technology is fully implemented," she said, "travellers entering New Brunswick can help speed up the process by printing and filling out the roadside questionnaire and having it ready when they arrive at the border."

It takes a few minutes to process each car but people have the option of printing out the questionnaire and filling it out before arrival to save some time during screening. (Kate Letterick )

Prince Edward Island has an online self-declaration form visitors from the other three Atlantic provinces must submit at least a day before their scheduled arrival in order to enter. They must also print a copy of their completed form and bring it with them.

Last Tuesday, the minister told CBC News the province would be moving away from a manual system for gathering info about travellers and details would be available soon.

"Currently, all of this information is recorded manually. We are working towards the implementation of a new system that will assist travellers coming into New Brunswick and will expedite things at the border," Urquhart had said.

Higgs says waits were 'excessive'

Before the bubble opened, Premier Blaine Higgs said his government was prepared for the additional traffic and promised that checkpoints at the P.E.I. and Nova Scotia borders would be adequately staffed.

On Tuesday, at a Fundy Trail Parkway announcement in Sussex, Higgs told reporters the traffic on the first day was "a little more than we expected."

"There were periods of time when the wait times became excessive, like two hours plus, and in a lot of cases commercial traffic was tied up in the middle of it."

Public Safety officials had to "relieve the pressure" because people were waiting too long, he said.

Premier Blaine Higgs was unavailable Monday for an interview about the border problems. (CBC)

The Department of Public Safety confirmed Friday night that for safety reasons, officers began at 3:45 p.m. to let vehicles into New Brunswick without checking on anything.

"This continued until congestion no longer represented a safety concern," department spokesperson Shawn Berry had said, without providing a time.

More than 17,000 vehicles entered the province that day, including 9,100 at Aulac, according to the government's dashboard of COVID-19-related statistics. It's unclear if the vehicles that were waved through were included in the statistics.

Overall this weekend, travel proceeded smoothly.-  Coreen Enos, Department of Public Safety

Enos would not estimate how many vehicles were let through without stopping, explain why things didn't work at the border that day, or what safety concern the long lineup posed. 

"Overall this weekend, travel proceeded smoothly," she said in an emailed statement.

"Very heavy traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border meant some delays at times in both directions.

"When the lineup got long enough to pose a safety concern, vehicles from Atlantic Canada were allowed to enter without being checked. The normal process resumed when it was safe to do so."

Earlier, another spokesperson for the department said Nova Scotia took similar action when lineups got too long.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have different rules for what happens at the border.

Improvements underway

Some improvements have since been made, said Enos.

New Brunswick vehicles, commercial traffic and daily commuters with work passes, as well as those with a Prince Edward Island travel permit, are being "expedited" as they enter New Brunswick from Nova Scotia, she said without elaborating.

Public Safety has also been working with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to change the physical layout of screening points to "improve traffic flow.

"We made some changes over the weekend and we expect to make more this week," Enos said. She did not describe the changes.

The minister said he's looking into staffing and signage changes that will speed things up this weekend.

He also wants to look at telling people when the peak times are in hopes of staggering travel times.

"If there is an extensive lineup, I've instructed [staff] to open it up and get it manageable again so that people aren't stuck in their cars for two or three hours."

It's been almost two weeks since New Brunswick Public Health recorded any new cases of COVID-19 in the province.

As of Monday, there is still one active case in the Campbellton region, also known as Zone 5, but no one in hospital with the respiratory disease, according to the government website.

The last time New Brunswick recorded a new case of COVID-19 was on June 23.

As of Monday, there are four active cases in Nova Scotiafive in Prince Edward Island and none in Newfoundland. 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton