Tourism minister defends rebate program amid health warnings against Family Day weekend travel
Travel within New Brunswick zones allowed, with a rebate for an overnight stay
The Department of Health is discouraging travel between zones this Family Day long weekend and during March Break to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the Department of Tourism is encouraging New Brunswickers to hold onto receipts for any travel within the province until the end of March, as part of a travel incentive rebate program.
Tourism Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace said it's not mixed messaging.
"We haven't been encouraging people to go out of their zone," she said by email.
"Some zones are large with lots to explore. For example, someone in Minto could go to Fredericton."
During Monday's COVID-19 briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said this is the time of year people tend to seek a warmer climate or just get away from home for a few days.
"This year, things will have to be different," she said. "Travel outside of Canada is definitely not recommended and we would discourage travel to other provinces at this time. We also want to see less moving around within New Brunswick.
"By limiting travel within the province, we are reducing the opportunity for the virus to spread and new outbreaks to occur."
At this time, our message is to not travel.- Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health
Sixteen new cases of COVID-19 were reported Saturday — one in the Moncton region (Zone 1), and 15 in the Edmundston region (Zone 4). There are now 160 active cases across the province.
New Brunswick also has four confirmed cases of the highly transmissible variant first reported in the U.K. — one in the Moncton region, Zone 1, two in the Saint John region, and one in the Miramichi region, Zone 7.
Seven people are in hospital, three in intensive care.
Russell was asked Monday whether she will still advise people to avoid non-essential travel between zones after March break, now that every zone is at the orange COVID-19 alert level, except the Edmundston region, Zone 4, which remains at the more restrictive red level.
"At this time, our message is to not travel," she replied.
"The virus moves with people. So if people are moving, the virus is moving. So we want you to stay within your zone."
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said the province has seen situations where someone with COVID-19 travelled from one zone into another and the virus got transmitted into a third.
"This has happened more than once and we know that this is the risk," she said.
"So we're just, we're asking and we're really advising that travel between zones, you know, just not happen, if at all possible."
The tourism minister said she agrees and encourages New Brunswickers to take advantage of the attractions available in their own zone.
"This pandemic has brought many challenges but hasn't taken away our ability to safely support our tourism industry while enjoying the many wonders our province has to offer," said Scott-Wallace, citing provincial parks as an example.
If people are out "enjoying tourism gems, accommodations and food and beverage operations" in their own zone, they should adhere to Public Health guidelines, she added.
Explore NB program reoffered
In October, the government announced it would reoffer the Explore NB Travel Incentive program, which was launched in July to help offset the impact of the pandemic.
Residents could apply for a 20 per cent rebate on expenses of up to $1,000 for travel within the province between July 15 and Sept. 30 that included an overnight stay.
It generated more than $17 million in spending in just two and a half months, Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy said during the speech from the throne.
The details of the renewed program are still being worked out. Scott-Wallace is encouraging people to check the department's website regularly for updates.
"If you've travelled in New Brunswick that included an overnight stay since October 2020, please keep those receipts. And if you plan to travel in our province between now and the end of March 2021, keep those receipts as well," a message by Scott-Wallace said on the website.
In an emailed statement, she said, "COVID-19 is very fluid and the virus was at a very different state when we announced the extension last October.
"At that time people could and might have travelled between zones, which, if the trip included an overnight stay would make them eligible to apply."
$1.2M reimbursed so far
The department is still processing the summer program claims, which had to be submitted by Oct. 30.
It received 25,257 claims and as of the end of the day Feb. 11, it has processed 14,508, said spokesperson Erika Jutras.
Of those, 11,565 have been approved and more than 10,000 applicants have received their rebate, she said.
More than $1.2 million has been reimbursed to date.
The outstanding claims could be worth another nearly $2.3 million.
"We have processed 57.4 per cent of applications and we are very happy with the progress," Jutras said by email.
No target for completion
There are 1,819 claims now under review after the applicants were asked to submit the correct receipts, she said.
"Given the feedback on the program, the team is working in great detail with applicants who had challenges submitting the correct receipt to help them rectify the situation. This takes time and for this reason, it is difficult to predict completion rates."
In the last week, the department has processed more than 2,700 claims and sent roughly 1,000 emails regarding incorrect or incomplete documentation, said Jutras.
"The team is working to process applications and issue rebates as quickly as they can."