PEI

'Hassle' for tourists: Letter from June 2021 shows P.E.I. business group seeking relaxed COVID controls

A group of prominent business leaders on P.E.I. lobbied Premier Dennis King to ease pandemic restrictions heading into the peak of the 2021 tourism season, according to a letter obtained by CBC News through freedom of information legislation.

Two weeks later, premier ended mask mandate, reduced testing for visitors

P.E.I.'s tourism industry took a major dip in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. Industry leaders who wrote to the premier in June 2021 were hoping for a much better season. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

A group of prominent business leaders on P.E.I. lobbied Premier Dennis King to ease pandemic restrictions heading into the peak of the 2021 tourism season, according to a letter obtained by CBC News through freedom of information legislation.

Two weeks after the letter was sent, at least some of the group's wishes were granted when King announced the sudden end of P.E.I.'s mask mandate and a reduction in COVID testing at the border.

"These milestones are taking place sooner than we had originally planned," King said during a media briefing on the morning of July 9.

Less than two hours later, at noon of the same day, the province's mask mandate was gone. It was reinstated in September, as case counts started rising again with the arrival in Canada of the Delta variant.

At the time of the briefing, P.E.I. had confirmed 208 cases of COVID-19 in the previous 15 months. That number rose to 233 by the Labour Day weekend, and did not hit 300 until Oct. 1. 

By comparison, with the Omicron variant surging in the first days of 2022, the overall case count as of Tuesday was 1,864, with 1,159 of those considered active. 

The P.E.I. Business Continuity Group, which includes businessperson Kevin Murphy as a spokesperson, was formed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its mission was to advise the province on measures to help the business community and to nudge Prince Edward Island toward a safe emergence from economic lockdown, according to the group's website.

Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King, shown on July 9, 2021, announcing that Atlantic Canadians holding a P.E.I. Pass would no longer need to undergo rapid testing when arriving on the Island. (CBC)

In a letter to the premier dated June 24, 2021, members of the group said the province's approach to managing the pandemic – then more restrictive than those of the other Maritime provinces – would harm Island businesses.

"We all want what's best for P.E.I., but unless we make some immediate changes, we will be at a disadvantage," the letter states.

Wanted to meet with premier

The group requested a meeting with King to allow for a "fresh discussion about extra cleaning requirements, six-foot distancing, masks, shields, to ensure we are keeping people safe, but not putting undue hardship on businesses compared to our competitors in other provinces."

It's not clear whether such a meeting took place.

The group's letter called the step of testing visitors at the P.E.I. border  "unnecessary and cumbersome," particularly for those who are fully vaccinated, saying related entry delays and lineups "would send the wrong signal to potential guests.

"We are very concerned with the implications of the opening plan both on our businesses but also on the negative impact it is having on our guests who basically do not need the hassle when planning a vacation."

It's nice to see the restrictions being removed or reduced. Everything helps.— Kevin Murphy in a followup email to Dennis King

Matthew Jelley is one of the tourism operators who signed the letter, and the person who emailed it to the premier.

He declined an interview, but said the message his group was putting forward was the same one the government was hearing from the Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I. and local chambers of commerce.

All decisions follow CPHO advice, says premier

In the July 9 briefing, King cited declining national and regional case numbers. He also urged Islanders to maintain a "cautious" approach, using their own discretion in deciding whether to continue wearing a mask in public places.

Asked this week about that announcement and what influence the industry lobby might have had, King said: "People have different views that impact them, and they're always free to share them with me and with others as we try to make these decisions through difficult times."

He said all his government's decisions throughout the pandemic have been in line with the advice of the province's chief public health officer.

"There's never been once through this pandemic when Dr. [Heather] Morrison has asked or suggested that we do something from a health perspective, that we didn't do it."

Season not disastrous in the end

In the June 24 letter, and in another sent the month before, the Business Continuity Group warned that the 2021 tourism season could be even worse than the 2020 one.

But the most recent figures show things worked out differently, with one of the key metrics, total room nights sold, up 70 per cent over 2020 as of the end of October.

Those numbers still lagged well behind pre-pandemic figures, by as much as 40 per cent.

"It's nice to see the restrictions being removed or reduced," Murphy wrote in a follow-up email to the premier a week after the mask mandate was lifted. "Everything helps."

Lack of notice led to complaint

But another business group that communicated with King's office raised concerns over the lack of advance notice as restrictions were starting to change.

"As the province moves towards lifting its COVID-19 mandatory health orders, the CFIB would like to stress the importance of clear and timely communications to small- and medium-sized businesses on what comes next," the Canadian Federation of Independent Business wrote in an email, also obtained through a CBC freedom of information request.

Prince Edward Island's initial mandatory face mask mandate came to an end at noon on July 9, 2021. It would be reinstated that fall as COVID cases began to climb. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

The CFIB urged the government to provide new directives "directly to employers well in advance of their application," rather than communicate policy changes through news briefings or the media.

'A huge slap in the face'

In another email, a grocery store operator offered what would appear to be an ironic congratulations to the premier for lifting the mask mandate.

"For you to so incredibly and abruptly lift the mask mandate is really a huge slap in the face (our masked faces)!" wrote the person, whose name was redacted in the document the government provided to CBC.

"The majority of the staff under this roof only have one vaccine shot so far and now we are dealing with 100's of tourists as well as the locals… A great portion of them deciding to do away with the mask," the person wrote.

"As frontline workers, we all thank you and applaud you for opening up the Island AND dropping the mask mandate all in one fell swoop!"

Tough rules, good policy? 

A professor of public policy at McGill University in Montreal said the pandemic has placed pressure on governments everywhere to manage competing interests of maintaining public health, supporting the economy and maintaining civil rights, "with I think the health consideration being considered paramount right now by most governments."

Public health measures really are engaged in protecting human life and human activity – and that, at the risk of stating the obvious, is a bit of a pre-condition to economic activity.- Pearl Eliadis, McGill University 

But Pearl Eliadis said something the pandemic has shown is that public health and economic interests aren't in competition – they are one and the same.

"Countries overall that have emphasized suppressing disease over supporting or taking measures to allow economic activity have actually done better on both fronts," she said.

"I think it speaks to the fact that the public health measures really are engaged in protecting human life and human activity – and that, at the risk of stating the obvious, is a bit of a pre-condition to economic activity."

She said restrictions like lockdowns and masking may have short-term economic consequences, "but they actually prove to be the better strategy."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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