Nfld. & Labrador

First travellers arrive — and depart — N.L. as Atlantic bubble opens

Friday marked the start of free travel between all Atlantic provinces without the need for self-isolation.

Travel across regional borders no longer requires isolation

Masks are now mandatory in the St. John's International Airport, a move that coincides with the opening of the Atlantic bubble. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's isolation is officially over — at least as far as travel with another Atlantic province is concerned — although people on the move during the bubble's first day, along with a new petition, are preaching caution in making that bubble any bigger.

The Atlantic bubble came into effect Friday morning, allowing residents of all four provinces to cross borders in the region for any reason, without the need to self-isolate upon arrival. Atlantic Canadians will still need to provide documentation to cross borders, the requirements of which vary depending on the province you're entering.

Mandatory mask use at the St. John's International Airport — a new rule, implemented to coincide with the bubble's beginnings — made it hard to discern the emotions of the first to arrive on Newfoundland soil Friday.

"Everything went really well" aboard the day's first flight from Halifax to St. John's for passenger Bill Moran.

His mother had died, and he said it had been stressful not being able to return sooner, wishing it was easier to get travel exemptions in such cases.

Despite the hardship, he and his wife felt any enthusiasm for bubble expansion should be tempered.

"I wouldn't want to open everything right up, flights going everywhere. It'll make it hard for everybody. Small steps," said Tammy Moran.

Jim Theriault was on the first flight out of St. John's, to see his mother and grandkids on the mainland. (Gary Locke/CBC)

A safety caution

With the St. John's terminal awash in COVID-19 precautionary signage, travellers told CBC News they felt safe during what was, for some, their first travel experience in months.

Behind his mask, Jim Theriault was eager to fly off to Halifax and see his 97-year-old mother and his four grandkids on the mainland. But he hoped people don't become forgetful amid the newfound freedom.

"I think some people think, 'Atlantic bubble, everything's back to normal,'" he said. "But you still have to social distance, and wash your hands."

Gerald Robertson, headed to Halifax for business, said he also felt safe with the surrounding safety precautions — but hoped the provinces wouldn't push the bubble's borders any further.

"Not at this point. They shouldn't open any other provinces until everybody's clear," he said.

Opposition MHAs also expressed concern over the Atlantic bubble, calling for increased measures at the border, such as testing or more questions of where travellers have been, than simply checking ID.

"Unless you got enough safeguards … it's going to be hard to identify people who shouldn't be coming in," said PC MHA David Brazil.

Health Minister John Haggie said the Newfoundland and Labrador has many of the same safeguards as other Atlantic provinces, such as a form travellers must fill out before entering.

"It's a declaration that they have travelled healthy and they have met the criteria in terms of not being exposed to COVID and not travelling while unwell," Haggie said.

The St. John's International Airport is awash with public health signage as the Atlantic bubble is now open. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

Haggie also addressed calls for testing at the province's border, saying the test the province uses for COVID-19 would not be good in a screening setting.

"One of the challenges is that the tests we have for COVID, the only test we have approved for COVID, is actually a diagnostic test.… Quite frankly, the use of that test is designed to pick up the answer to the question, 'Do you have COVID-19?' Not 'Are you at risk of it?' so it's not a very good test in a screening situation."

Elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, people spent Friday on the move, with long lines of cars inching across the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island borders.

Travel restrictions for the rest of Canada remain in place, with exceptions made in Labrador West and southern Labrador with their Quebec neighbours.

As of Friday, there are no cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have three each.

A bigger bubble?

Premier Dwight Ball has speculated about opening up to the rest of Canada as early as July 17, with premiers such as Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil making similar statements.

But one high school student in Gander worries that's a bad idea, and has started a petition asking for the province to put the brakes on it.

"I understand the desire to travel, and to come home again and to visit family. I also understand the desire to rebuild our economy," said Jessica Tiller.

"But I guess I'm wondering, and a lot of other people are wondering, how these desires outweigh the risk of the virus being brought back."

Public health officials and politicians in the province have stated on numerous occasions that new cases are not unexpected, but that testing, isolating and contract tracing have all proven to be effective in minimizing the virus' spread.

Still, Tiller said she's seen health practices in public — like physical distancing — fall by the wayside in recent weeks, and worries that could speed up any potential transmission.

Health Minister John Haggie says there isn't a set date for Newfoundland and Labrador to reopen to the rest of Canada. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

"The lack of social distancing, I suppose, that people are currently practising, I feel like that could be very detrimental," she told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

Haggie said politicians and public health officials alike will be keeping a close eye on what transpire with freer travel, and that July 17 date for further expansion is "not cast in stone. There's no certainty around that."

Haggie thanked those who are concerned about the spread of the virus for their concern, as he said it shows how serious the province takes the virus. However, he said the province has to move forward.

"The good work that has been put in has been [done] to enable us to return to a much less restrictive life than we've had before," he said. "Our plan is N.L. life with COVID, not hiding away until COVID-19 goes away. Because COVID will not go away, and we have to learn how to live with it."

Newfoundland and Labrador first shut the door to non-essential travel from the rest of Canada on May 4.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning, Andrew Hawthorn and Carolyn Stokes

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