Bubble trouble: N.S. decision to reopen border to N.B. in March led to confusion, records show
Emails show communications staff in Nova Scotia left it up to New Brunswick to explain the rules at its border
Back on March 18, the Council of Atlantic Premiers seemed to be on the same page, announcing they would reopen the Atlantic bubble by April 19.
"Bubble! See you soon," the government of New Brunswick tweeted to the three other Atlantic provinces that day, complete with a GIF of heart-shaped bubbles.
The Nova Scotia government replied with a GIF of its own, one that said, "I want to see you again."
But behind the scenes of the adoring tweets, Nova Scotia was planning a policy announcement for the next day that would leave staff with the government of New Brunswick scrambling to answer a slew of questions from a confused public, according to documents obtained by CBC News through access to information in both provinces.
Bubble! See you soon <a href="https://twitter.com/GovNL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@GovNL</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/InfoPEI?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@InfoPEI</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/nsgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@nsgov</a> <a href="https://t.co/vcvxRmQwrA">pic.twitter.com/vcvxRmQwrA</a>—@Gov_NB
One day after the bubble announcement, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin announced on March 19 that the province would open its border to New Brunswick the next morning.
The news release issued by the province doesn't mention that New Brunswick had not changed its rules, meaning travellers coming from Nova Scotia would still have to self-isolate in this province. Behind the scenes, communications staff in Nova Scotia said it was up to New Brunswick to tell the public its rules at its border.
"If there's anything that we've learned from the COVID-19 crisis generally, it's the importance and the art of effective communication," said Tom Urbaniak, a professor of political science at Cape Breton University.
"If you need to get a message across to the public, you have to communicate it clearly to the public. If you need the public to focus on something, you need to specifically ask the public to focus on something."
March wouldn't be the last time that different rules in the two neighbouring provinces caused confusion.
In June, one day before it was set to welcome travellers from the other three Atlantic provinces, Rankin announced New Brunswickers would continue to be subject to restrictions when entering Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia premier cited New Brunswick's decision to reopen to Canadian travellers earlier than its Atlantic neighbours.
The decision prompted a blockade that shut down highway traffic between the two provinces for parts of two days.
Nova Scotia lifted those rules on June 30 and since then, travellers have been able to travel between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia without self-isolation or pre-registration.
'People need to ask NB'
According to the records, officials in Nova Scotia decided on March 18 that it would be announcing the opening of its border to New Brunswick the next day at a COVID-19 news conference.
The decision appears to have caught some staff within the Nova Scotia government off guard.
"Sorry, can you clarify? The 'bubble' is opening for NB as of Saturday morning?" Nova Scotia government staffer Charlene Fogarty wrote in an email.
"From Nova Scotia's point of view, yes," answered Adèle Poirier, a communications adviser with the Department of Health and Wellness/COVID-19.
"We will allow people from NB to come without having to isolate, same as PEI. We understand that they are NOT reciprocating."
Another staff member, Adrian Fuller, expressed concern about the changes and how they might affect things at the border.
"I guess I would like to be better connected with discussions that impact our operations at the border," he wrote.
Shortly after the press release was issued the next day, Fogarty asked if they could clarify whether New Brunswick residents would need to quarantine after a visit to Nova Scotia.
"This is going to be the main question my staff have at the border," Fogarty wrote.
But Poirier said the government didn't put that key piece of information in the news release because "we try not to speak for other provinces."
"It's our understanding that NB is not reciprocating but ultimately people need to ask NB."
A flurry of calls from the public
Across the border in New Brunswick, staff at the Department of Justice and Public Safety, responsible for overseeing the provincial border, appear to have learned of the change after getting "multiple phone calls" from people who had questions.
"Due to the number of calls her team received, I decided to contact the Nova Scotia EMO to find out if there was any change," Richard Walker, an operations officer with the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, wrote in an email.
"After calling Nova Scotia EMO, they had informed me that it was just released that the New Brunswick/Nova Scotia border was open in that people travelling from New Brunswick into Nova Scotia no longer had to isolate for two weeks."
It didn't take long for questions to flood in on social media, too.
About an hour after the news release from Nova Scotia went out, staff with the New Brunswick government decided they would need a social media post to address all the questions.
"We have too many comments to answer individually at this point," wrote Catherine Speight, New Brunswick's director of social media, digital photography and videography services within corporate communications.
Premier's Office says it has no records about border announcement
Throughout the afternoon, New Brunswick government communications staff worked on the wording of a social media post to try to clarify things.
"We have been getting slammed this afternoon/evening with questions about NS and their border announcement," Speight wrote later that evening.
Neither Rankin nor New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs were made available for an interview about the records on Friday.
While the records suggest the announcement came as a surprise to officials in New Brunswick, Rankin's director of communications, Jane Taber, said it was not a surprise.
"We were asked at the time about this, and the Premier made it clear at the time that he was removing self-isolation for NB in hopes the province would do the same," Taber wrote in an email to CBC News.
"He did notify his provincial colleagues that he was going to go sooner rather than later as the case numbers were decreasing and so NS could adopt same approach as we had with PEI."
Any records that would detail meetings between the premiers appear to have been redacted in the records provided to CBC News by Nova Scotia's Department of Health.
In its response to the freedom of information request, Nova Scotia's Office of the Premier said it couldn't find any records related to the announcement, including correspondence with officials in New Brunswick.
'Let's learn from this'
In Amherst, Mayor David Kogon said people were initially pleased to hear the border was reopening, until they realized New Brunswick wasn't reciprocating the changes.
"It was disappointing to see one premier willing to open and the other premier not," Kogon said.
Being on the border with New Brunswick, Kogon said, Amherst was impacted by the seven-month closure more than any other part of Nova Scotia. Beyond the people who cross the border regularly for work or to visit family, Kogon said about 40 per cent of Amherst's retail sales come from New Brunswick.
Should restrictions someday return, Kogon hopes the four premiers can all be on the same page.
"It's confusing to people when different rules apply on different sides of a border that people want to go across on a regular basis."
Urbaniak, the political scientist, also hopes something can be learned from both the March and June border confusion.
"Let's learn from this, because the communications, without a lot more effort, could have been managed much, much more effectively," he said.
"The public was led to believe one thing and the public was surprised by a last-minute announcement and not only the public, but public servants."