As N.B., N.S. discuss opening to the whole country, P.E.I. has cold feet
Try Atlantic bubble first before talks proceed, says Premier Dennis King
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King is distancing his administration from a statement made by one of his Atlantic colleagues Friday, as the four Eastern provinces continue to haggle over whether, when or how to open their borders, and to whom.
Addressing a question on the topic at a media conference Friday morning, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said that after opening their borders to one another, the four premiers are "all aligned that we hope to expand across the country in mid-July, sometime in July."
"We want our country back together again, and I think everyone believes that, but we need to do it in stages that everyone accepts," said Higgs.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil made similar comments Thursday, saying his province could open to the rest of the country after it has lifted travel restrictions for the other Atlantic provinces.
While King said the topic of opening up to the rest of Canada was discussed by the four Atlantic premiers on a call Thursday evening, he said his province isn't ready to take those discussions any further just yet.
"That is a conversation I have not had yet with the chief public health office here in P.E.I., so before I could even begin looking much more deeply at that I would need to take a look at what [Dr. Heather Morrison's] situation would be in terms of the epidemiology and where she thinks our province would be at that time," King told reporters Friday.
He said right now P.E.I's focus is on, "if we can do it safely, an Atlantic bubble."
A week ago it was the other Atlantic premiers pouring cold water to dampen King's enthusiasm, with the premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia suggesting it was too soon to put a date on opening up the Atlantic region.
On Friday King said it was still too early to put a specific date on when that bubble could form, but the three Maritime premiers are all talking about early July.
Issue of trust, says Opposition
King has faced some backlash from the public over his government's decision to allow cottagers from other provinces into P.E.I.
On Thursday the Official Opposition questioned King's assertion that priority in processing applications would be given to residents of the other Atlantic provinces, while applications from Ontario and Quebec cottagers, the provinces with the biggest COVID outbreaks, would be last.
Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker told the house that some Ontario residents were among the first to arrive, and that inconsistent government messaging on the issue was eroding the public's trust.
"If Islanders no longer believe government is taking appropriate measures to protect them, they will start to view all of the outsiders that arrive here on Prince Edward Island as a potential threat," Bevan-Baker said, "and it's really distressing and it's inappropriate."
Businesses want plan, details
The Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce waded into the debate Friday, issuing a statement calling on the King government to "present a cohesive plan that will outline how, when and under what guidelines various groups and individuals will be permitted to enter Prince Edward Island during the COVID-19 recovery period."
Having a specific plan would allow "our local business community an opportunity to prepare for a possible increase in customers, and make informed decisions about how and when they reopen," said Chamber interim CEO Gerard Adams in the statement.
"I understand the frustration from our business community, from our tourist operators that so much of what we face right now due to COVID and its impacts are unknown. It makes it really, really difficult to plan," responded King.
He said he hoped to give businesses "as much lead time as possible" to prepare for a possible Atlantic bubble.
'Difficult' for P.E.I. if neighbours open up
But he said until there's a better understanding of the public health implications of opening borders, "as frustrating as it might be for the business community, it would be unfair for me to suggest a date that I wouldn't be able to do just yet."
King said if New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were to open their borders to the rest of Canada, "it would make it difficult for us at the borders. We would have to either strengthen our borders to keep those [people] out or to tell those people coming from other parts of the country that they would need to isolate here."
Tourism is P.E.I.'s second-largest industry, with annual revenues of $500 million. Tourism Minister Matthew MacKay has said COVID has been "devastating" for the sector, and that revenues could be down this year as much as 85 per cent.