Cross Country Checkup

As Thanksgiving nears, Canadian expat in the U.S. wants exemption from mandatory quarantine

Canadian-American dual citizen Kai Petainen says that the Canadian government should consider exempting Canadians returning from the U.S. to visit family from mandatory quarantine under certain conditions, including a negative COVID-19 test.

Dual citizen Kai Petainen believes a negative COVID-19 test should be enough for a family visit

Kai Petainen, left, pictured with his wife and son. As a Canadian who also holds U.S. citizenship, Petainen would like to be able to travel to Canada without having to quarantine. (Submitted by Kai Petainen)

Thanksgiving dinner won't be the same for Kai Petainen this year.

The Canadian dual citizen lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and typically hops across the border for long weekend holidays to visit family in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

But with the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he's staying put this October.

"Canadians living outside of Canada right now are currently not welcome in Canada," he told Cross Country Checkup. "We should be treated as Canadians allowed to enter."

In June, the federal government loosened border restrictions to allow immediate family members separated by temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions into the country.

Kai Petainen, left, pictured with family at the Canada-U.S. border in August. The family travelled from Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in July to visit family and were subject to a two-week quarantine. (Submitted by Kai Petainen)

Under current travel conditions, Petainen could enter Canada to visit his mother, but he would be forced to quarantine — and have no direct contact with family — for 14 days. 

Typically, Petainen says that he would spend just three days in Canada during a holiday like Thanksgiving, then return to the U.S.

"A lot of [U.S.-based] Canadians, they can't just take off two weeks or three weeks to spend time with family," he said. "They just want to come and visit family, say hi, and I can't do that."

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told Checkup in a statement that the travel measures are intended "to minimize the risk of introduction and spread of COVID-19 from persons coming into Canada."

Further exemptions

While Petainen understands the need for caution, he says that the government should consider exempting Canadians returning from the U.S. to visit family under certain conditions. 

For example, he suggests that people who intend to limit visits to a small, familial bubble, or those without symptoms and a negative COVID-19 test, could be exempted.

Speaking on Checkup earlier this month, University of Alberta infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger said that while the currently available COVID-19 test is relatively accurate, it's not perfect.

"The test is not really something that you would want to use as a substitute for all the other practices that are important," she told host Ian Hanomansing.

A close-up picture of a Canada Border Services Agency shoulder patch.
Immigration law expert Sharry Aiken says that COVID-19 rules have provided Canadian border officials greater discretion to request follow-ups with travellers who may not adequately quarantine. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Immigration law expert and Queen's University professor Sharry Aiken adds that with testing resources stretched across the country, she believes that Petainen's case would not be a priority for border officials.

"I certainly appreciate that it would be nice if testing was available en masse for everybody arriving in Canada so that we could avoid the very challenging circumstance of having to self isolate for two weeks," she said.

Enforcement resources stretched

Aiken says that while Canadian citizens coming to visit family over a holiday would not be turned away from the border, pandemic rules have given border officials more discretion to "make case-by-case decisions in terms of who is subjected to further follow up or not."

That means if border officials suspect a traveller may flout isolation rules, PHAC could be notified. They would then work with various law enforcement agencies to check whether or not the traveller stuck to the restrictions.

But, Aiken adds, those resources are struggling to keep up.

"We certainly know, just anecdotally, that resources are extremely limited in relation to enforcing the self-isolation rules," she said. "Officials are making very quick decisions based on their review of whether somebody has the means to self isolate or not, and I think that's a difficult judgment call for sure, so it's an imperfect response."

"I've heard, anecdotally, of people being admitted and they're not properly self isolated, who are out in the community."

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Zoom calls 'not the same'

When Petainen travelled to Canada with his family for a five-week trip in July, he says PHAC and Public Health Ontario checked in daily. Visiting family is important to Petainen — especially for his mother.

"My son is six years old, and this is her only grandkid ... and her only grandkid lives in the United States," he explained.

"We don't have the super power of time, we can't stop time, and so when you have a grandkid that's six years old, grandparents want to see those kids."

Given the restrictions, however, he adds that the family will instead opt for a virtual gathering this year.

"We're going to certainly chat via Zoom or Skype, but it's not the same as being with one another in person."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News. Produced by Steve Howard and Kirthana Sasitharan.

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