North·Analysis

Should Yukon consider closing the Alaska Highway to Americans?

The U.S. is seeing a big spike in new COVID-19 cases. With Americans allowed to travel through Yukon to Alaska, that has some in the territory worried.

Rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S. raise concerns in Canada

This U.S. vehicle was spotted in downtown Whitehorse in mid May. Under Yukon government rules, U.S. travellers bound for Alaska are supposed to stay out of downtown Whitehorse. (Submitted by Russ Knutson)

New COVID-19 cases in the United States are on the rise and that's causing some Yukoners to wonder if it's time to close the territory to American travellers.

The U.S. is recording around 40,000 new cases daily, with deaths and hospitalizations once again on the rise. The number of new cases is up 50 per cent over the last two weeks.

States that have been aggressively reopening are starting to backtrack, imposing new regulations and lockdowns.

The vast majority of international travel between the U.S. and Canada has been suspended since late March. But travel deemed "non-discretionary" is still allowed, a category that includes Americans travelling between Alaska and the Lower 48 for essential work or to return home.

When those travellers are allowed in, they're ordered to travel through Canada as quickly as possible and to use as few services as possible.

Some U.S. travellers taking the scenic route

But there's evidence that some Americans crossing the border are pulling a fast one. Earlier this month, RCMP in Banff ticketed at least six Americans for hiking in Banff National Park, an activity which is not on the list of approved types of non-discretionary travel.

In addition to federal rules, the Yukon government requires Alaska-bound travellers to leave the territory within 24 hours and to stick to a corridor along the Alaska Highway. They're also ordered to stay out of downtown Whitehorse and rural communities.

An information station is set up along the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse to provide information to travellers passing through Yukon during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Whitehorse resident Murray Lundberg said he's seen U.S. plates in downtown Whitehorse and in the territory's campgrounds — two places American travellers are explicitly barred from.

"Every campground has a big red, white and black sign on the front that says 'you're not welcome here, Yukon residents only,' and they just drive past and set up camp," he said.

Lundberg said he's complained to the territory's COVID-19 hotline about American travellers, with little success.

In an email, Breagha Fraser, a spokesperson for the Yukon government's Emergency Coordination Centre, said enforcement officers have received 23 complaints about outside travellers breaking transit rules.

She said none of those complaints have resulted in charges. Three people have been charged for failing to self-isolate upon arriving in the Yukon, but the self-isolation rule doesn't apply to people transiting the territory.

Fraser said enforcement officers prefer educating people caught breaking the rules over throwing the book at them. 

"If someone reports an individual that is not sticking to their designated corridor, enforcement officers will follow up with the complaint," she wrote. 

"We collect contact information for every individual entering Yukon, [and] we will contact the individual to follow up. Investigation may include travelling to the place the vehicle was last seen."

'This isn't being unfriendly'

Lundberg believes it's time to consider barring American travellers from the territory.

"This isn't being unfriendly," he said. "This is keeping ourselves safe, which is a responsible thing to do. If Americans aren't going to take [COVID-19] seriously then we need to."

The European Union is considering new travel regulations that would allow visitors to enter member states, so long as a visitor's home country has a "comparable or better epidemiological situation" to Europe.

An RV is stopped at the check point at the Watson Lake weigh scales. (Submitted by the Government of Yukon)

Cross-border access is governed by an agreement between the Canadian and U.S. governments. Alaskans aren't the only Americans who need to travel through Canada to get home, said Rebecca Purdy, a CBSA spokesperson. Purdy gave the examples of Point Roberts, Wash., a tiny parcel of Washington state, located just south of Vancouver, that's only accessible by land by travelling through Canada.

She also noted that residents of Campobello Island, NB, must travel through Maine to reach the rest of Canada. Still, Purdy said, individual provinces and territories may make their own rules about who can enter.

Economic considerations

So the Yukon could, conceivably, choose to close itself off to American travellers. But for Alaska Highway businesses who have seen tourist traffic virtually wiped are relying on U.S. traffic to help make up at least some of the difference, said Rich Thompson, chair of Yukon's Business Advisory Committee.

Thompson said views of committee's membership vary, but generally fall on the side of allowing U.S. travellers in, with strict rules.

"Predominantly the business advisory council is peopled by by folks who have their business on the line right now and that are anxious to see any revenue that they can see," he said.

"Safe entry is encouraged and if we can bring people safely in to drive business, that's a good thing for for companies that have been decimated."

Speaking to reporters this past week, Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer, said he's not particularly worried about U.S. travellers as a potential source of COVID-19 spread. 

Premier Sandy Silver would not say whether the Yukon government would consider closing the border to Alaskans. Silver urged Yukoners not to confront any wayward travellers and said most Americans passing through are following the rules.

"There will in every case be people that feel that they can circumvent the rules," he said. "It's up to us ... to make sure that we do as much as we can to up the enforcement."

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters

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