Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
When Calgary-based travel advisor Tannis Dyrland first heard about Alberta’s COVID-19 border testing pilot program, she cried “happy tears,” seeing the quarantine-reducing initiative as a small win for an industry decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Alberta Pilot Project,” as it’s commonly referred to as, launched in November 2020.
A partnership between Alberta and the federal government, the first-of-its-kind initiative allows international travellers to take a COVID-19 test at one of two border crossings in Alberta — the Calgary International Airport (YYC) and the Coutts land border crossing.
Travellers who test negative are allowed to exit their 14-day quarantine (a mandatory requirement for all arrivals in Canada since March) just as long as they remain in Alberta for the first 14 days and get a follow-up test a week later.
“It was a brilliant move,” Dyrland, owner of Travel With Tannis, an affiliate of The Travel Agent Next Door, tells PAX. “I’m very grateful that it’s here.”
Canada’s 14-day isolation order for international travellers – an enforceable law under the Quarantine Act – is considered, by many, a major barrier to selling travel amid the pandemic.
When the Alberta pilot project was announced in October, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said participants with negative results would be able to shorten their quarantine period to nearly 48 hours.
That’s an attractive offer for those itching to vacation abroad, even as the Canadian government continues to strongly discourage non-essential movement.
READ MORE: "We cannot turn our back to the travel industry”: Alberta launches rapid testing to reduce quarantine
In mid-December, Alberta said more than 18,000 travellers had used airport testing, reporting a 1.48 per cent positivity rate on the first test.
In other words, people are, indeed, using the pilot project to pursue their travel dreams. (There’s a reason why most of the politicians that were targeted by media for travelling during the holidays are from Alberta).
For Alberta-based travel professionals like Dyrland, the phone is starting to ring again, even if business still sits at 10 per cent of what it was last year.
Even WestJet said bookings were up due to the project's popularity.
“There’s definitely more questions and inquiries,” Dyrland says.
From 14 days to 15 hours
But what Dyrland didn’t realize about Alberta’s testing program, after recently trying it for herself following a family vacation at The Grand at Moon Palace in Cancun, Mexico, was how fast it kicks in.
Dyrland, her husband and two kids, after submitting to COVID testing at Calgary airpot upon returning to Canada in late December, received notifications of their negative results within just 15 hours, instantly relieving them of their quarantine duties
“Honestly, it felt surreal,” says Dyrland. “Within 15 hours, I was free to walk and get groceries and do whatever I needed to do.”
The family had to participate in follow-up tests at their local Shoppers Drug Mart five days later, but even then, the process had barely scratched the half-way point of the 14-day requirement that everyone else in Canada must follow.
“I’m really grateful for the project,” says Dyrland, noting how it has brought some normalcy back to her life.
How it unfolded, step by step
There’s some preparation involved in using the pilot project, says Dyrland, walking us through the process.
She, firstly, advises would-be travellers to purchase travel insurance (on top of the COVID-19 coverage that’s offered by airlines) just in case the coronavirus is, by chance, contracted and travellers are forced into quarantine.
READ MORE: Trudeau "interested in seeing the results" of Alberta's pilot project
Alberta has a designated website for its pilot project, which you can view here.
“You have to register before you return to Canada,” says Dyrland, who signed up her family while in Cancun. (See the registration form here).
Travellers can, of course, decide to participate in the project after they land (but they will be held up at the airport, says Dyrland, as there are forms to fill out).
Dyrland also recommends people, in advance, download and submit their quarantine plan via the ArriveCAN app, which is now a Canada-wide requirement for all international arrivals.
Once Dyrland registered for the pilot project, everyone in her family received a number, which each person had to present at YYC (these numbers are compiled on one digital receipt, she says).
Upon landing at YYC, passengers proceed to Canadian Border Service Agency customs, as per usual.
The option to participate in the testing project follows customs, and if eligible, participates are handed colour-coded sheets and directed to an enrollment booth for verification.
READ MORE: WestJet bookings are up thanks to Alberta pilot project, says CEO Ed Sims
The testing stations at YYC are just beyond luggage collection, and here, travellers meet with a nurse, who processes the paperwork and conducts a COVID-19 test using a throat swab.
“It’s very quick and better than the nasal swab,” Dyrland says.
After that, “You’re essentially put into quarantine and must go directly home,” she says.
Within 15 hours, Dyrland and her family members all received text messages, stating that they had tested negative and were, essentially, free to roam the earth.
“There was a tremendous back up"
Did most travellers landing in Calgary participate in the pilot project? Absolutely, says Dyrland.
The travel agent says her family waited in line for roughly one hour and 40 minutes to get tested, rounding out the entire airport experience – from landing to leaving – to two hours.
“People with small children were getting frustrated because it was late,” says Dyrland, noting how it was 11:30 p.m. by the time she exited the terminal. “But nobody was complaining. Everyone around us was happy that they got to go on vacation.”
It didn’t help that three airplanes landed at YYC at the same time, resulting in one CBSA officer having to manage 300-something arrivals at once.
“There was a tremendous back up,” she says. “It seemed to cause mass confusion for CBSA and the airport greeters.”
“Here we are in world of social distancing, cramped together in a line for almost two hours.”
Dyrland also questions the effectiveness of the follow-up test that participants must undergo five to seven days after receiving their results.
In previous interviews, Premier Kenney said the follow-up test is required because COVID-19 can take time to develop and become detectable.
Dyrland argues the current system leaves room for error in terms of determining where the virus was contracted, if one later tests positive for COVID-19.
“Why are we free of quarantine and then required to take a second test five days later?” she asks. “If that follow-up test comes back positive, was COVID obtained in destination, or in Alberta? Was it due to travel, or due to the superstore I went to?”
“How do we label it?”
Dyrland, who hosts her own podcast, “Travel With Tannis,” in addition to regularly appearing as a travel expert in local and national news segments, is using her experience to further educate the public about safe travel amid the pandemic.
“As people see how I got a negative test so quickly, they’re definitely more open to the idea of travelling,” she says.
According to the province of Alberta’s website, the pilot project will run until 52,000 participants have enrolled.
Dyrland says she would like to see the federal government expand the initiative to more hubs across Canada, such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
“For Alberta, it’s been fairly successful,” she says. “We’re a smaller population, so it was a good place to start.”
Ontario, on Jan. 6, unrolled free COVID-19 testing for international arrivals at Toronto Pearson airport, but has decided to keep its 14-day quarantine order (officials have, however, hinted at plans to modify quarantine periods for travellers who test negative).
The pilot project in Alberta remains unchanged under Canada’s new travel rule, which requires anyone older than five entering Canada to show proof of a negative COVID-19 (PCR) test taken within 72 hours of their departure time.
This means that three COVID-19 tests are now required for travellers using the program at Calgary airport (the pre-departure test, the airport test, and the follow-up).
Dyrland admits travel isn’t for everyone during the pandemic. (“It’s OK not to travel,” she says, “but it’s also OK for those who want to.”)
Mental health is a “bigger crisis” right now, for many, she says.
“I can tell you, within 12 hours of being in the sunshine, beside the ocean, breathing fresh air, my mental health went complete 180,” she says. “Within 12 hours, my kids went back to being the people I knew before.”
“That made it completely worth it.”
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