What Canadians Should Know If They’re Travelling Now

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The federal government advises that Canadians avoid all non‑essential travel, both at home and abroad. Stay informed on the latest travel rules and restrictions by visiting the Government of Canada’s site on travel health notices.

If your reason for travel is considered essential by a province or territory under the Quarantine Act’s emergency orders (and you are given an exemption by the government of Canada) here are some helpful resources to help you plan your trip.

Should you need to travel, Air Canada is flying to destinations across Canada, the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Air travel – like grocery shopping or salon visits or school drop‑off – looks pretty different right now. Masks abound. The smell of hand sanitizer hangs in the air. And sometimes, information about what’s allowed and which practices are best can get a bit convoluted. We’re here to help, rounding up the latest rules and research for any Canadian who’s planning to take a trip right now.

Can I visit another province in Canada?

You can go to some of them, though you might not get the warmest reception: In November, B.C. Premier John Horgan called for country‑wide restrictions on non‑essential travel and urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask Canadians to “stay where you live.” Currently, travel between Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. is permitted (if discouraged) and doesn’t require quarantining. Other provinces and territories allow travel with 14‑day self‑isolation requirements. And a few out east will not allow non‑residents in, other than for essential reasons like going to school or attending a funeral.

December 11, 2020
Family skating amongst the vast mountains of British Columbia
   Photo: Kei Sux

Where do I have to quarantine within Canada?

Non‑residents arriving in Manitoba, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia have to self‑isolate for 14 days (unless, in Nova Scotia’s case, they’re coming from elsewhere in Atlantic Canada). Non‑residents heading to Nunavut must quarantine for two weeks outside of the territory – in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife – and have their travel approved by the chief public health officer. Residents from outside Atlantic Canada travelling to Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and P.E.I will also have to quarantine – if, that is, they’re permitted entry, which only happens in extenuating family and medical circumstances.

A white and red lighthouse in Nova Scotia
   Photo: Ruth Troughton

What happened to the Atlantic bubble?

Regrettably, the bubble has burst. In early July, the four Atlantic provinces agreed to let residents travel freely within their borders without quarantining first. But in late November, with Covid‑19 cases rising, Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. pulled out of the arrangement, suspending non‑essential travel and requiring self‑isolation.

What should I do if I’m returning home from outside of Canada?

You need to get acquainted with the ArriveCAN app. The Government of Canada requires everyone entering the country to download ArriveCAN before their flight and provide travel and contact information, a self‑assessment for Covid‑19 symptoms and a 14‑day quarantine plan (which includes where you’ll be staying, how many people will be there, and whether you can have food and necessities delivered). After you land, you need to confirm you’re in isolation and complete daily self‑assessments until the two weeks are up. (If you don’t have or can’t use a smart phone, alternative arrangements can be made.)

A woman spending alone time with a book in a sunny chalet
   Photo: Andrew Ly

Okay: how likely am I to catch Covid on a plane, really?

“The overall sense is that airplanes are not as important a means of spreading Covid‑19,” says Dr. Susy Hota, medical director for infection prevention and control at University Health Network in Toronto. The virus primarily spreads through respiratory droplets and smaller aerosols generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Planes have high‑efficiency filters and ventilation systems designed to scoop up these particles, cycle air out of the cabin and filter it at a much higher rate than indoor spaces like offices and restaurants. In fact, a U.S. Defense Department study conducted this summer found that a plane’s air‑filtration system removed the virus 15 times faster than in a typical home.

Masks also play an important role in blocking your respiratory droplets from getting out and, to a lesser extent, other people’s droplets from getting in – which is why in‑flight masking is now mandatory. In September, infectious disease experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at five flights, each at least eight hours long, with rigid masking policies. A total of 58 passengers tested positive for Covid‑19 on arrival, but when the other 1,500‑plus passengers were swabbed two weeks later, none of them appear to have been infected.

When it comes to Covid‑19, no activity is 100 percent safe. Mask effectiveness can vary: Health Canada says three layers are best, though you can make your own filter to slip between two layers. You probably want to skip the in‑flight snack, beer or anything else that means removing your mask. Definitely keep the sanitizer handy. “But there’s enough evidence out there to suggest planes are probably safer than people initially thought,” Hota says. “Initially, people said, oh no, how is it different than a cruise ship? It’s actually quite different from a cruise ship.”

A woman wearing a face mask, using her phone on a plane
   Photo: Elly Johnson

And remember to take steps to keep yourself safe off the plane, as well. “I think the biggest risk within airports is the issue of congregation,” Hota says. Maintain physical distance in customs lines and baggage claims, apply hand sanitizer before and after using any high‑touch screens, and keep that mask firmly in place.

What should I do when I land somewhere outside of Canada?

Restrictions vary from country to country; consulting the Canadian government’s travel advisories can help. At least 120 countries require travellers to present proof of a negative Covid‑19 test before arrival, generally within 72 hours of the date of departure. Depending on where you live and the testing criteria, though, this might be tricky: provinces like Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia won’t test individuals who haven’t been exposed to Covid or aren’t exhibiting symptoms.

Let’s say I get a rapid test at an airport – do I still need to quarantine for 14 days?

Airports that offer rapid tests on arrival – like in Istanbul, Munich and Havana – generally mean a shortened quarantine for people who test negative, whether that’s a few days or even a few hours. Most airports use a throat swab or a saliva swab to detect the presence of the virus. But there are some important caveats, Hota says. One is that these point‑of‑care tests aren’t the most sensitive, catching only high amounts of the virus – which means that minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic people will be missed. Another is that “your test result reflects your status at the very moment you’re tested, but we’re dealing with a virus that has an incubation period of up to 14 days,” she says. “So you might test negative at day two of being exposed but still be transmitting to other people.”

A flock of birds passing through Istanbul's skyline
   Photo: Anna Ashta

Are there better tests in the works?

Yup. In September, McMaster Health Labs, in partnership with Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, began testing roughly 16,000 international travellers at Pearson Airport. Each volunteer self‑administered a high‑sensitivity oral and nasal polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, “which is the gold standard throughout Canada,” says Dr. Marek Smieja, scientific director at McMaster Health Labs. The self‑collected PCR swabs were then repeated, in quarantine, at day 7 and day 14, and robotic‑based laboratory testing turned results around in under 24 hours.

The good news: 99 percent of travellers tested negative for Covid‑19, and the vast majority of positive cases were caught on arrival. A quarter of cases were identified at day 7, but fewer than one in 1,000 people tested positive on day 14. “That’s the second good news, because the argument for shortening quarantine is that there are very few or no cases after day 7,” Smieja says. The study will deliver its final results in January, but “we like to think we’ve demonstrated the feasibility of testing large numbers of people more efficiently than anything we can currently offer in my clinical laboratory,” Smieja says. “I can see in the future there could be a similar regimen for international and domestic travellers.”