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.
The on-arrival test-and-isolate rule for air travellers arriving in Canada from outside the United States that federal officials announced two weeks ago in response to the Omicron COVID-19 variant is not yet operating at 100 per cent capacity.
But on-arrival testing is happening, at random, as travel advisor Amanda Beaver, owner and president of GLOW Travel, witnessed first-hand while passing through a busy Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) Sunday night (Dec. 12).
Beaver, who was returning from Jamaica, where she was honoured at the Jamaica Tourist Board’s One Love Affair gala alongside other Canadian travel pros, said her on-arrival experience unfolded in four phases:
- Completing a declaration at the primary inspection kiosk;
- Passing through customs, “where you’re given either a pink or green sticker on your passport.” That evening, pink meant you’ve been selected for a PCR test, green meant you’re clear;
- Once you clear customs, you then proceed to baggage and hand your declaration to the officer;
- As you prepare to leave the airport, you will go through another check point. “This is where they will administer the PCR test if you have a pink sticker,” she said.
The green or pink sticker was distributed by an officer right before Beaver proceeded to customs.
“It was very random,” Beaver told PAX, describing her experience. “[The officer] didn’t even look at our passports. She grabbed them, someone got pink, someone got green.”
READ MORE: Travel abroad is “risky and unstable,” says Duclos, but gov’t travel advice remains unchanged
For Beaver and her travel partner, her husband, that resulted in two different outcomes.
Beaver received a green sticker, whereas her husband was given pink, which meant, as per Ottawa’s new protocol, her husband would have to self-isolate at home until receiving the results of his PCR test.
The stations for PCR testing are located beyond baggage collection, down the hall before the final exit, and Beaver’s husband was told that he would receive his results, via email, within 48 hours.
Those who were selected for testing were required to scan a QR code and register with Switch Health before their sample was collected, Beaver said.
However, this is a process that can be done in advance, which Beaver is recommending to clients as “it’s one less thing to do at the airport.”
Beaver and her husband landed in Toronto at 11:10 p.m., and after all was said and done, they exited the airport at 12:50 a.m.
“There hasn’t been a lot of communication over what happens once the testing, at the airport, is administrated,” Beaver said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there…some people think they’ll have to quarantine in a facility.”
“Hopefully airport testing will eventually eliminate having to do COVID-19 tests in destination.”
The government, over the past two weeks, has tried to offer some clarification on airport testing, which has caused a lot of confusion among travellers and travel advisors.
On Nov. 30, the day it was announced, the protocol lacked details, such as its start date, how long people would have to isolate for before receiving results, how it would apply to connecting passengers, and a strategy for airports.
Last week, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclo said that air arrivals may receive a test at the airport or be given a take-home testing kit, which will be managed by either Dynacare, LifeLabs or Switch Health.
In addition, anyone who lands in Canada and has to take a second flight to their final destination will be tested at the airport where they first landed, Duclo said.
On-arrival testing, which the federal government is paying for, does not apply to travellers flying directly from the U.S. (officials, however, have said that this could change).
But it does apply to air travellers entering Canada from abroad who connect in a U.S. destination, said Duclos.
For now, though, it appears to be a randomized program. Which isn’t new – air passengers have been randomly selected for COVID-19 testing at Canadian airports for months now.
Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, in an interview with CBC, said that Transport Canada is working with health officials, airports, and the CBSA to implement the tests “as efficiently as possible.”
“We are ramping up to get to 100 percent collaboratively with the airports. We will do whatever it takes to get it done right,” Alghabra said.
“It was late, but we were happy campers”
TravelOnly’s Pauline Blacoe of Shine Travel, who was in Jamaica for the same reason as Beaver, also passed through Pearson last night.
She said her husband Jeff’s vaccination record was flagged by an agent (“We had no idea what that was about,” Blacoe told PAX), but everything, as it turned out, was in order.
“The officer we spoke to was very nice, kept chatting with us about travel, Jamaica, and the awards,” Blacoe said.
In the end, the officer gave Blacoe and her husband green stickers, which allowed them to skip the PCR test and self-isolation step.
“It was late, but we were happy campers,” Blacoe told PAX.
The night also highlighted how the ArriveCAN app – which requires travellers to submit their contact information, a COVID-19 symptom self-assessment and quarantine plan before boarding a flight to Canada – is being treated by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) these days.
Recently, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino appeared to announce some leniency around using the app, which, since it launched last year, has been labeled as mandatory.
READ MORE: Travellers can now give details in person at border instead of using ArriveCAN, Mendicino says
Addressing questions about the app’s reliability during Question Period on Dec. 6, Mendicino said that travellers can skip the app and provide their details in person, at the border, instead.
Beaver, in Jamaica, faced technical issues with ArriveCAN, which is supposed to be completed up to 72 hours before arriving in Canada by land or air.
“The app wasn’t working,” Beaver said. “It would get up to 80 per cent complete and then stop.”
Beaver, who was flying with WestJet, was advised at the check-in counter to complete ArriveCAN at her gate at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. (In other words, WestJet let her pass check-in without a completed ArriveCAN receipt).
Beaver eventually completed ArriveCAN, except nobody checked it before she boarded her flight. Canada customs, at Toronto Pearson, didn’t check it either.
It is unclear how "official" Mendicino's announcement was as the Government of Canada's website still warns of fines and consequences for not using the app.
On that same website page, though, the government notes that ArriveCAN is unavailable until Dec. 14, 2021, due to a “schedule upgrade.”
Inconsistencies aside, Beaver, noting how packed Pearson was last night, was happy to report that “travel is back.”
“People are not letting the testing discourage them from travelling,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on Monday (Dec. 13), noted Canada's new on-arrival testing and self-isolation rules at a press conference.
“We have added different rules to protect people. Canadians have been living for months and months with variants and difficult situations,” said Trudeau. “And what I encourage everyone to do is to watch out for what the public health rules are, and make their decisions as a result of that.”
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