Nfld. & Labrador

Bubble backlash? Calls grow for N.L. to delay Atlantic Canada travel

Non-essential travel is a go throughout Atlantic Canada as of Friday, but some in Newfoundland and Labrador are questioning the move.

Expanded Atlantic Canada bubble begins Friday

Non-essential travel throughout Atlantic Canada is a go as of Friday, but not everyone is happy about the move. (John Li/Getty Images)

As the clock ticks down to the opening of the Atlantic bubble this Friday, some people in Newfoundland and Labrador are wondering whether going through with the idea is in the best interests of the province.

St. John's musician Chris Andrews asks why the province plans to allow non-essential travellers despite the myriad rules still in place governing aspects of people's lives, from long-term-care visits to children's teams.

"While we still have day-to-day restrictions, and can't really live our lives, is it the right time?" said Andrews, the Shanneyganock frontman, told CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Monday.

"People here, they're wanting to do things, they're losing out on major parts of their life. And we're being told we have to do that to stop the spread of the virus. But we're letting people eventually come from places with the virus, with no isolation and no testing."

Travel restrictions in and out of the province have been a part of daily life for months now as part of the public health efforts to contain COVID-19, barring non-essential travel and requiring new entrants to Newfoundland and Labrador to self-isolate for 14 days upon entry.

Those rules will lift on Friday for residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to allow freer travel across the region. After previously expressing public reservations about the bubble, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball has also set July 17 as a target date to open its borders up to other provinces.

After the bubble announcement, Minister of Health John Haggie said, "At some point we have to try and come out of hibernation. We can't be hermits, and we need to move, and now is a safe time to do it."

Chris Andrews, left, questions why the province put time and effort into a staycation campaign, only to open up the borders a day later. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Stay home, or head out?

The bubble announcement came less than 24 hours after the provincial government lit up Cabot Tower to unveil a staycation marketing campaign for Newfoundland and Labrador, Stay Home Year.

"It seems like it was a very rash decision, to put all this time and energy and money into developing a program to keep Newfoundlanders here, to travel around our beautiful province and see what we have and also put money into our economy," said Andrews.

The pandemic has put Andrews and most of his colleagues out of work, but he said his arguments extend beyond his industry's interest. While he does hope to welcome people back to the province one day, he wants that to be after a larger sense of normalcy has returned within Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It seems like we did all this hard work, and now we're going to throw it all aside because the government says it's time," Andrews said.

Andrews shared his thoughts on Facebook, garnering a flood of responses in support.

An online petition, separate from Andrews's post, asking the province to keep the borders closed has more than 10,000 signatures.

It's a marked contrast to the Maritimes, where Moncton is preparing to welcome back Prince Edward Islanders, and other tourism operators look forward to an increase in tourist traffic.

'We're definitely in peril'

While major players in Newfoundland and Labrador's business sector have called for looser restrictions for weeks, since the Atlantic bubble announcement some in the hospitality sector say they don't expect a huge boost.

"I don't think it's going to help much. I think in some ways, we might even see a reverse effect of it." said Deborah Bourden, who co-owns the Anchor Inn and four other properties in Twillingate.

"For us, we'll see some Newfoundlanders now who will decide, instead of vacationing within the province, I think that they might now decide to go to Nova Scotia or P.E.I. because they're able to."

Among her three open properties, Bourden says she's facing her third night in a row with no bookings. Her staff has been pared down from 45 to 16.

"We're definitely in peril," she said.

Deborah Bourden says a lack of communication from the tourism department meant she and her staff spent time and money planning staycations with no indication anything else was in the works. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Ninety per cent of her traffic comes from out of province — the bulk from Ontario — and Bourden says she is in favour of opening borders, but isn't happy with how the province is handling the rollout.

Bourden, who also sits on the Hospitality NL board, said the province's tourism department has been a "void" of communication with operators, to the point that it's "very damaging" to the industry.

She said her team spent time and money preparing staycation packages after being told about the Stay Home campaign, only to have that burst when the bubble was announced.

"It's very confusing for us as operators. We geared up for the in-province campaign probably about two weeks before it actually happened, and it didn't happen. And suddenly now we're talking about travelling within Atlantic Canada," she said.

"I don't really know what changed."

Bring on the bubble

But other sectors are throwing their full support behind the move.

"It's an excellent first step," said Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander Airport.

The airport resembled a ghost town this spring. Its traffic for April and May was down 98 per cent, said Wright, with a loss of about $800,000.

Gander International Airport Authority CEO Reg Wright says an Atlantic bubble is a good first step, but a national one would be better. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Welcoming back airplanes and travellers within Atlantic Canada will help, said Wright, but ultimately he wants to see national visitors coming through.

"I think it's an important start, and if we see a move to lifting entirely domestic travel restrictions in mid-July, that would be even better," he said.

While that could salvage some of the airport's summer, and Wright doesn't think its finances will be in dire shape until the beginning of 2021, the pandemic's impact on travel is a long-term one.

"2020's not gonna hold a great deal of recovery," he said, estimating that will take between four to five years. 

As of Sunday, Newfoundland and Labrador has no known active cases of COVID-19. Neither does P.E.I. or Nova Scotia, while New Brunswick has five active cases.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and CBC Newfoundland Morning

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