Health experts urge caution as big business demands loosening of travel rules

Health experts urge caution as big business demands loosening of travel rules

Health experts are urging caution after business leaders called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and provincial premiers to ease air travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Pottinger, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, says big business should follow the lead of Health Canada and the World Health Organization, which has highlighted a surge of infections in parts of the U.S. and China due to more relaxed lockdown rules.

“The virus does not care whether people are upset, taking a hit to their bottom line,” Pottinger said.

“The virus does not care what country you’re from, what time zone you cross, it’s just there as a threat.”

CEOs from 27 major Canadian companies wrote an open letter Thursday asking for a “measured” reopening of the skies that would see travel resume across all provinces and between select countries, though none were identified.

Passengers on international flights must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival in Canada and interprovincial travel is banned in Manitoba and the Maritimes and discouraged elsewhere.

The demand by the business community comes as provinces begin to ease confinement measures, reopening stores, restaurants and schools and allowing larger social gatherings.

Lower travel barriers may be reasonable, but as communities open up they become more vulnerable, Pottinger said, particularly as students return to the classroom in September.

While Canada has extended its U.S. border shutdown until July 21, many European countries including France and Germany are reopening their borders to fellow European travellers.

The risk of air travel lies in both the packed confines of the plane and the potential for spreading the disease to new communities after touchdown.

“Once it’s in the cabin, it’s difficult to stop air moving around,” said Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health.

Transport Canada requires passengers to wear masks on all flights, and temperature checks will soon be obligatory for all international passengers as well as those flying within the country, with screening stations to be set up at 15 airports by September.

Though face coverings and frequent cabin cleaning go a long way to cut down on risk, hygiene protocols are not foolproof and studies have shown the temperature screenings fail to detect a high percentage of those carrying the virus.

Sly and Pottinger say they support a gradual easing of air travel restrictions on countries with low infection rates, but note that the epidemic can flare up quickly and only a small fraction of Canadians have immunity.

Unexpected surges have occurred in remote communities such as La Loche, Sask., and the Campbellton region of New Brunswick. A fresh outbreak in Beijing has prompted a second set of partial lockdowns as schools were closed and hundreds of thousands of residents deemed at risk were barred from leaving the city.

“Imagine that psychological setback, having been released into the world, blinking in the sunshine, and suddenly they blow a whistle and say, ‘No, back into your basement hole and we’ll nail the lid shut,’” Sly said.

He added that he would be willing to fly, but would avoid washrooms and select a window seat for minimal contact.

“And I would wear a baseball cap to protect from droplets falling down to your eyes,” where receptors can potentially pick up the virus, he said.

Some passengers will “inevitably” touch shared armrests or lower their mask to eat, making physical distancing on board all the more important, Pottinger said.

For now, Air Canada and WestJet block the sale of middle or adjacent seats in economy class and throughout the entire plane, respectively. Ultra-low-cost carrier Flair Airlines charges $49 to guarantee an empty adjacent seat.

“It’s going to drive the price up something incredible,” said John McKenna, who heads the Air Transport Association of Canada, which counts 30 regional carriers as members.

“There is a recovery plan underway. But all of that is fruitless unless they do away with the 14-day period. Because no one’s going to travel if they have to be isolated for 14 days.”

Airlines are scrambling to claw back a piece of domestic and transatlantic travel before the summer tourism season fades. Italy, France and Germany, where infection rates are declining, are on the list of countries that should be dropped from Canada’s quarantine list, McKenna said.

“No one knows if it will be a second wave or if we are really looking at a sustained, long crest,” Pottinger said. “But air travel is going to remain one of those activities that will be at increased risk.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Health Services' central zone jumped from 162 active COVID-19 cases to 178 on Friday. Five additional deaths were reported provincewide, bringing the toll to 323. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
622 new COVID-19 cases set another daily high Friday

Province confirmed 622 additional cases Friday

City of Wetaskiwin Mayor presenting the AUMA Above & Beyond Award to John Maude and Susan Quinn. Ren Goode/ City of Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin County residents win the AUMA Above & Beyond Award

John Maude and Susan Quinn are being recognized for their role in Wetaskiwin’s sustainability.

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo)
Alberta records 410 COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conversion therapy ban gets approval in principle, exposes Conservative divisions

Erin O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

Most Read