Atlantic bubble to restart April 19; N.L. participation hinges on drop in alert level

A joint statement by the region's premiers says the bubble is conditional on outbreaks remaining under control. Newfoundland and Labrador, though, will take part only as long as it continues to relax its alert levels for public health rules.

Conditions include containing any outbreaks of the virus, following advice from CMOs

The St. John's International Airport could see a lot more traffic now that the Atlantic Bubble is slated to reopen on April 19. (Gary Locke/CBC)

All four premiers of the Atlantic provinces have agreed to reopen the Atlantic bubble by April 19, according to a joint statement issued Thursday afternoon. 

Conditions to reopening include containment of any regional outbreaks, continued progress in vaccination programs and adherence to advisories from the chief medical officers of health.

Additionally, "Newfoundland and Labrador's participation is conditional on continued progress in easing its provincial alert-level restrictions," reads the statement, issued by all four premiers. 

Parts of Newfoundland and Labrador are in Alert Level 3, while the Eastern Health region remains in Alert Level 4. The next review of whether to downgrade levels is expected on March 26. 

The announcement about the Atlantic bubble restarting comes after a Wednesday night virtual meeting between premiers Blaine Higgs of New Brunswick, Iain Rankin of Nova Scotia, Dennis King of Prince Edward Island and Andrew Furey of Newfoundland and Labrador to discuss the topic. 

The Atlantic bubble allows residents of the Atlantic provinces to travel within the region without the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days.

These are the current number of active COVID-19 cases, as of the latest information available:

  • 4 in P.E.I. 
  • 15 in Nova Scotia.
  • 42 in New Brunswick.
  • 34 in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Non-essential travel between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island has been restricted since the end of November due to rising caseloads.

N.L. made the cut, after all

It was about a week ago when rumblings started about an interprovincial bubble making a comeback. 

Last week, Higgs said he and Rankin had discussed a new springtime bubble

It wasn't clear, but there was information swirling that it would be a Maritime bubble to start, and Newfoundland and Labrador would join later. 

Premier Andrew Furey seemed to change the conversation when he said Wednesday that he believed N.L. could get in at the ground floor. 

"I'm quite hopeful we can get there in the timelines that they are discussing," Furey told reporters during a COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.

The Atlantic bubble first came into effect on July 3.

It offered a boost — albeit some said a small one — to the beleaguered tourism industry in all four provinces and also gave people a chance to travel after months of severe restriction and lockdowns. 

The bubble burst on Nov. 23 when both N.L. and P.E.I. pulled out, citing rising COVID-19 case counts within the Atlantic region. 

"The Atlantic bubble has been a source of pride … but the situation has changed," said Furey at the time. 

Tourism boost?

On Thursday, Furey said all four premiers agreed making the call to reopen now, ahead of the summer months, would reassure the region's hard-hit tourism industry.

"We know people will be sitting at home over the Easter break, booking vacations and planning their summer, so that was the reason for the level of urgency," Furey said. 

Premier Andrew Furey said in an interview Thursday the Atlantic leaders agreed on the bubble now to get a head start on summer tourism. (CBC)

The chief medical officers "are aligned" at present and agree the low caseloads permit reopening for April, according to Furey; however, the bubble could be revoked at the first sign of danger.

"Just because we're making the decision today doesn't mean that it's a firm thing," he said.

Furey said the premiers had "preliminary discussions" about opening the bubble to the rest of Canada at some point in the summer. "Nothing was decided," he said, adding the provinces intend to take any countrywide reopening slowly.

Joining the rest of Canada by July 1 is a "possibility," he added, but cautioned it's too early to set that date.

Bubble unrelated to criticism: Furey

The premier has faced backlash this week over unreleased pandemic modelling his office used to call an election earlier this year.

That election, beleaguered by delays and setbacks, left bureaucrats scrambling to devise a provincewide mail-in ballot system as a variant outbreak sent the province into lockdown just hours before voters hit the polls.

Thursday's announcement was not related to that criticism, Furey said in an interview just after the news broke.

"This was an Atlantic Canadian decision. It wasn't my decision. It wasn't trying to change the channel," he said.

"I'm trying to ensure the tourism operators, the restaurateurs, the small business owners, know that there is hope and optimism into the future."

'I'm all for it': PC MHA

PC MHA Paul Dinn, for one, wants to bring on the bubble.

"As long as it's based on science and it's not some phantom probabilities concocted in someone's head that's leading to this, I"m all for it. We need it," Dinn said. 

However, Dinn said he thinks it shouldn't distract the province from issues related to COVID-19 restrictions.

"We still have kids in high school that can't play sports together," he said.

Dinn also discussed rotational workers and isolation rules affecting their families, and said those guidelines should continue to be a priority.

NDP Leader Alison Coffin told CBC she worries Furey is moving beyond what is expected of a caretaker premier with his involvement in travel and tourism issues.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Stephanie Kinsella