As provinces start rolling out their reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are encouraging Canadians to get vaccinated and stay vigilant with public health measures if they want to travel across the country.
If they don’t, interprovincial travel may spark a fourth wave , according to Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
“Opening up to travel outside the province is interesting because vaccination is not a bulletproof vest,” Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said.
“We’ve got a really good shot at crushing this thing once and for all. But there is a small risk of a fourth wave if we screw it up, especially with the variants circulating.”
He said the key for Canadians to travel safely this summer is to make sure that people are vaccinated, infection rates are declining and more deadly variants are not entering the country.
When will travel restrictions be lifted?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously said COVID-19 restrictions need to stay in place until at least 75 per cent of the population has been vaccinated with at least one dose and 25 per cent with a second dose.
Currently, Canada has vaccinated around 53 per cent of the population with at least one dose, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada.
Vaccination rates differ depending on the region. For example, Ontario has vaccinated around 54 per cent of its population with at least one dose, Alberta around 50 per cent and Manitoba around 48 per cent.
Every province also has different reopening plans. Some, like British Columbia and Ontario, have imposed restrictions within and between provinces for non-essential travel. While others, like Saskatchewan, Quebec and Alberta, don’t have any travel restrictions in place.
This week, B.C. announced a plan to lift travel restrictions during its Step 2 and 3 reopening plan.
COVID-19: Ontario’s reopening plan compared to Alberta’s, BC’s
Step 2 means provincial travel restrictions are lifted. The earliest date for this is June 15, or when at least 65 per cent of the adult population are vaccinated with at least one dose.
And Step 3 means “Canada-wide recreation travel” is allowed. This could land on July 1, or when at least 70 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated with one dose, along with low case counts and declining COVID-19 hospitalizations.
On Thursday, Prince Edward Island set a date for ending pandemic-related travel restrictions for the rest of the country. Health officials said the province will reopen to Atlantic Canadian travellers on June 27 and to some Canadian travellers on Aug. 8.
Ontario has not announced when it is lifting its travel ban, but according to the province’s website, the stay-at-home order remains in place until at least June 2.
Deonandan applauded provinces like Ontario for not yet announcing how they plan to ease travel restrictions, arguing the responsible thing to do is to “take the temperature of the situation” first and then lift travel restrictions when it’s safe to do so.
“If we’ve learned nothing this past year it’s ‘not to rush things,” he said.
Although land travel between provinces is banned in certain regions, Canadians can still hop and a plane and fly from Vancouver to Charlottetown, which can spread the virus.
Between May 12 and May 26, 79 domestic flights have been flagged by the Canadian government for possible exposure to COVID-19.
But Deonandan believes domestic flights are still safer than international ones — as the latter is how COVID-19 variants enter the country.
Will a summer of domestic travel spread the virus?
Deonandan worries that giving Canadians the green light to travel throughout the country amid a pandemic may help spread the virus, even if people are vaccinated.
“By saying you’re free to travel the country because you’re vaccinated, you’re assuming that the disease is not prevalent anywhere in the country. I don’t think that is a fair assumption,” he said.
Travelling to a region that has a low infection rate may be OK, but he said it’s a huge problem when you travel to a region with high numbers, and “assume the vaccine will protect you.”
“Vaccination will not protect you if the prevalence is high in a region,” he warned, especially if you only have one dose.
For example, Alberta’s recently-released reopening plan targets the elimination of all public health restrictions as early as July for Stage 3 (when 70 per cent of eligible Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine).
Calgary Stampede set to return after Alberta announces reopening plan
This aligns with the Calgary Stampede (July 9-18), an event that draws in tourists from across Canada.
Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said it could be safe to travel to Alberta for the Stampede providing four conditions are met: COVID-19 case count is down, there is an absence of hot spots, variants are not spreading in the community and people are vaccinated with at least one dose (but two would be better, he said.)
“If all these things happen, interprovincial travel should be safe over the summer.”
He argued that in order for an event like the Calgary Stampede to be safe to travel to, Canada should vaccinate 75 to 80 per cent of people with at least one dose, and at least 25 per cent with two doses.
“But COVID-19 is still around, so we have to be careful,” he added. “If new variants enter that are more contagious and are even resistant to vaccines, that could slow us down.”
Conway said it is still important that Canadians practice safe public health measures, like mask-wearing and gathering in small groups, even when vaccinated.
“I think these are good guidelines for travel,” he said.
Will Canadians travel?
Despite vaccination efforts ramping up across the country, a recent poll by Ipsos shows that only a small percentage of Canadians plan on travelling outside their province this summer.
According to the poll, 26 per cent of Canadians say they plan on travelling around the country. And young people aged 18-34 (38 per cent) are more likely than older Canadians, aged 55-plus, (18 per cent) to agree with this.
Regionally, those living in Alberta (43 per cent), Saskatchewan (40 per cent) and Manitoba (40 per cent) are more likely to agree than Quebec (26 per cent), Ontario (22 per cent) and B.C. (21 per cent), that they plan on travelling outside of their province this summer.
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between May 12 and 14, 2021, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,001 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to census parameters. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadians aged 18+ been polled. The credibility interval will be wider among subsets of the population. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.
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