World·CBC Investigates

COVID-19 quarantine exemption for Costco CEO shouldn't have happened, Ottawa says

Costco's American CEO, Craig Jelinek, and one of his senior lieutenants were allowed to skip Canada's mandatory 14-day COVID-19 quarantine for an August tour of new grocery stores, CBC News has learned. The two arrived on the same day that three other U.S. executives were granted quarantine exemptions in Canada.

U.S. execs allowed to skip self-isolation for 3-day, cross-country tour of new stores

Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, shown in October 2019 in Nebraska, visited Canada with another company executive for a three-day store tour in August. The Canada Border Services Agency says the two men were not eligible for quarantine exemptions and should not have been allowed into the country. They arrived on the same day that three other U.S. executives were granted similar exemptions. (Nati Harnik/The Associated Press)

The American CEO of Costco was granted a special exemption from Canada's mandatory 14-day COVID-19 quarantine to attend the openings of the grocery chain's newest outlets, a CBC News investigation has learned.

Craig Jelinek and another top company executive, Joe Portera, travelled to Canada aboard a private Gulfstream jet in late August for a three-day store inspection blitz that took them to Ontario, Quebec and Alberta — the epicentres of this country's novel coronavirus outbreak.   

The pair first touched down at the Ottawa International Airport on Aug. 25 — the same day that the billionaire CEO of Wisconsin-based Uline Inc. and two of her senior executives were granted similar quarantine exemptions after arriving by private jet at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

In both cases, the business executives were allowed to enter the country and skip the two-week self-isolation period on the grounds that they were "essential" workers — decisions that the federal government now characterizes as mistakes made by front-line Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees the CBSA, vowed to fix the problem after a Sept. 16 CBC News report documenting the quarantine-free visit that the Uline executives made to the company's warehouse in Milton, Ont. He declined a request for an interview about the Costco exemptions and the steps that he has since taken.

After questions were raised about a quarantine-free visit that executives from U.S. company Uline Inc. made to the company's warehouse in Milton, Ont., in August, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees the Canada Border Services Agency, vowed to fix the problem. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Their travel was deemed to be essential when it should not have been," Blair's office wrote in an email response to questions this week about the grocery store visits. 

"Decisions on admissibility are made by border services officers (BSOs) based on the information provided to them." 

John Ossowski, president of the CBSA, also declined an interview request. 

A spokesperson for the agency confirmed that Jelinek and Portera, Costco's executive vice-president, were not eligible for quarantine exemptions and should not have been allowed into Canada.

"A subsequent review of the information concluded that the travel of the Costco executives should have been categorized as discretionary and entry denied under the travel restrictions in place at the time," she wrote in an emailed statement.

Opposition asks about other mistakes

Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, the Opposition critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said Blair and the government need to be more transparent about what decisions are being made at the border and why — especially given that more than a million Canadians have been forced to self-isolate after returning home from abroad, according to the CBSA.

"There seems to be a double standard applied to billionaire, highly connected, wealthy, successful individuals, while other Canadians might not be able to do the same thing for their smaller businesses, or they can't reunite with their family members when relatives are on their deathbeds," she said.

Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, the Opposition critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, says the federal government needs to be more transparent about what decisions are being made at the Canada-U.S. border and why. (Parliament of Canada/Zoom)

Stubbs said she also wonders how many more business executives were mistakenly granted quarantine exemptions since the beginning of the pandemic shutdown in mid-March.

"The lack of transparency, the lack of clarity — and frankly, the minister refusing to actually answer questions — you know, makes Canadians wonder about the competence and the capacity and the consistency within the system," she said.

Costco confirmed that Jelinek and Portera attended new store openings in Sherbrooke, Que., and Gloucester, Ont. — a suburb of Ottawa — on Aug. 26 and 27, and they visited the company's Canadian head office in Ottawa for a meeting.

The company said the pair also travelled to Calgary on the afternoon of Aug. 27 but did not attend a local store opening the next morning, instead confining themselves to their hotel rooms. Both returned to the United States on Aug. 28, with Jelinek flying directly to the Seattle area, where Costco has its headquarters, and Portera returning to Ottawa aboard a different private jet with a number of Canadian executives before heading to his home near Washington, D.C. 

"Mr. Jelinek and Mr. Portera arrived in Canada prepared to return to the United States if they were not permitted to enter Canada," Stuart Shamis, Costco's Canadian corporate counsel, said in a written statement to CBC News.

"They responded to all questions asked of them by the governmental officials who were present. They reviewed their plans for the trip with those officials which included respecting all COVID-19 protocols during their time in Canada. This included social distancing and wearing face masks." 

Both Costco and the Canada Border Services Agency said there were no prior discussions about, or approvals given for, the trip.

The company said Jelinek and Portera have tested negative for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and that neither will attend the opening of a new store in Niagara Falls, Ont., in mid-November. 

The Aug. 27 opening of a new Costco store in the Ottawa suburb of Gloucester, Ont., was attended by the American CEO and another company executive from the U.S., who flew into Ottawa for a tour of three stores in Canada and were given a special quarantine exemption. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Border rules tightening, but confusion remains

Both Blair's office and the CBSA said procedures at the border have been tightened since news of the August exemptions came to light. New guidelines have been issued, and a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week "support line" has been established to allow agents to "flag any high-profile individuals attempting to cross into Canada," Blair's spokesperson said.

The minister's spokesperson wrote that the new guidelines are working and that the agency has since "denied cases of intended entry by executives who were intending to enter Canada for similar discretionary travel" but declined to provide details.

The CBSA was unable to say just how many business executives have been turned back under the revised guidelines, telling CBC News that the agency "does not routinely record details on a traveller's job title or description."

The instructions for border agents have changed frequently since the beginning of the pandemic. CBC News obtained copies of several of the rapidly changing briefing notes, with "Version 7" being issued on Aug. 20 and  "Version 11" just 10 days later. A simplified "cheat sheet" for agents, based on those evolving directives, suggests that foreign owners of Canadian businesses could be allowed into the country and exempted from quarantine "depending on circumstances."

Barbara Jo Caruso, a Toronto immigration lawyer who represents a number of U.S.-based companies, says federal rules around who qualifies for quarantine exemptions and why aren't clear. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Barbara Jo Caruso, a Toronto immigration lawyer who represents a number of U.S.-based companies, said the federal government has set out 15 categories of quarantine exemptions but that trying to find out the specifics of how and when the rules apply has been next to impossible.

"There is on the website a link to essential industries, but it's open for interpretation, and because [the] Public Health [Agency of Canada] hasn't been responding to emails, it's been left to CBSA at the border to make that determination," Caruso said.

The rules appear to have been tightened in recent weeks, said Caruso, who has had one corporate client turned away at the border. But the confusion continues.

"We don't know who the decision-maker is. Public Health is pointing to CBSA. CBSA is pointing to Public Health," she said.

It's a situation that shouldn't be persisting, seven months into the pandemic, when businesses are still struggling to find their way, Caruso said. "The public needs to know what the criteria is. There needs to be some transparency, and we need to know what the process is."