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


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

Just Posted

Central zone has 20 active cases of COVID-19

Province identified 143 new cases across Alberta on Wednesday

Sylvan Lake Municipal Library going waste free with new program

The Zero Waste DIY program begins on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. on Zoom

COVID-19: Active cases in central zone up Tuesday

Central zone active cases remains lowest of all zones

Small force of locals team up for Sylvan Lake Underwater Cleanup

The annual cleanup was focused on getting an much garbage out of the lake as possible

Central zone active cases down to 20

Province provides update

Liberals vow wage-subsidy extension to 2021, revamp of EI system in throne speech

Canadian labour market was hammered by pandemic, when lockdowns in the spring led to a loss of 3 million jobs

Canada’s active COVID-19 cases top 10,000 as daily new cases triple over the past month

Dr. Tam repeated her warning to young people, who have made up the majority of recent cases

Liberal effort to reset policy agenda panned by rivals as too much talk, not action

Trudeau said it’s ‘all too likely’ families won’t be able to gather for Thanksgiving next month

Grand jury indicts police officer in Breonna Taylor death

Officer Brett Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment

Missionary plane dedicated at Ponoka, Lacombe airports

MiracleAir flies humanitarian missions to Nicaragua

RCMP investigating after far-right groups disrupt anti-racism rally in Alberta

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said she respects the right of peaceful assembly, but denounces racism and violence

Refresh of Liberal government’s agenda comes amid new looming COVID-19 crisis

Lockdowns saw fed spending soar to historic levels in effort to offset pandemic’s blow to Canadians’ livelihoods

Public health officials urge Canadians to limit contacts again as COVID-19 cases rise

Canada has committed $1 billion to buy at least 154 million doses of vaccines from five different companies

Majority of Canadians support wearing masks during COVID-19, oppose protests: poll

Nearly 90 per cent felt wearing a mask was a civic duty because it protects others from COVID-19

Most Read