Air travellers entering Canada who refuse to quarantine in a government-approved hotel are about to face a steeper fine.
Starting Friday (June 4), international arrivals who decline their mandatory COVID-19 test at the airport or disobey Ottawa’s order to pre-book and pay for a three-night, non-refundable stay at a quarantine hotel could be ticketed $5,000 for each offence.
This is quite an increase from the current fine of $3,000.
The update is posted on the Government of Canada’s website, here, on a page that outlines quarantine and isolation measures for travellers.
The increase is, presumably, the government’s way of responding to some travellers who, for several months now, have been walking out of airports, refusing to quarantine in a hotel, while choosing to pay $3,000 instead.
But upping the fine is also a bit of head-scratcher given that, last week, a federally-appointed panel of epidemiology and virology experts recommended Ottawa ditch the hotel quarantine program for good and, instead, let people make their own quarantine plans.
A flawed system
In a data-driven report issued on May 27, the “COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel” identified many flaws in Canada’s hotel quarantine system.
The obvious one is the fact that travellers can accept a fine without presenting a quarantine alternative.
According to government stats, between April 14 and May 14, more than 1,000 travellers were fined for refusing quarantine in a hotel and more than 400 were fined for refusing the required COVID-19 test before flying to Canada or upon arrival.
But enforcing the hotel quarantine program, which began Feb. 22, has been inconsistent at the four major airports currently accepting international passengers - this being, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.
Most travellers arriving in Calgary and Montreal, for example, haven’t been ticketed at all because fines are handled differently in those provinces, as it was recently discovered.
Meanwhile, the very hotels that were designed to halt the spread of COVID-19 have been dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks of their own.
Last month, in Toronto, both the Holiday Inn Toronto International Airport and Crowne Plaza Toronto Airport Hotel, two federally-designated quarantine facilities, both experienced an outbreak of the virus.
The panel also notes administrative burdens and inconsistencies with hotel quarantining given that Canadians can land at a U.S. airport and enter Canada, by car or by foot, to avoid their hotel stay (the program, currently, only applies to international air arrivals).
Since February, international air arrivals have been required to stay for a minimum of three nights in a federally-approved hotel while awaiting PCR test results.
The stay can cost travellers up to $2,000 (the price varies by location), regardless of how long the test takes to process.
But Ottawa’s panel of experts say the required 72-hour stay “is inconsistent with the incubation period of SARS-CoV-2.”
It also outlines recommendations for unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and fully vaccinated travellers.
Unvaccinated travellers, the panel says, should be subject to current 72-hour, pre-departure PCR testing protocols and testing on arrival – minus the hotel quarantine.
However, travellers in this category with a negative PCR test result taken at day seven of quarantine should be permitted to exit quarantine, the panel says.
The experts noted this McMaster HealthLabs study, which says that seven-day quarantine with a test at the end of a quarantine period may be similarly effective to a 14-day quarantine without testing.
For partially vaccinated travellers, the committee recommends home quarantine until a negative test result is received on arrival.
Fully travellers that can show proof of vaccination should be allowed to skip their pre-departure test, quarantine requirement or day seven test entirely, the panel says.
However: a PCR test on arrival should still occur for “surveillance purposes."
"Adjustments" coming soon?
Canada’s current travel, quarantine and border restrictions are set to expire on June 21.
Federal officials have acknowledged their panel’s recommendations – which aviation, tourism, trade and advocacy leaders have endorsed – but there are, currently, no immediate plans to relax the rules.
Last week, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair announced that Canada's travel and border restrictions will remain untouched.
The panel’s report, however, is excepted to influence future decisions on travel restrictions, said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra at a virtual Mississauga Board of Trade event last Friday (May 28).
“It’s really going to provide good insight into our next considerations and next steps,” said Alghabra.
The Minister said Canadians can expect to see “adjustments” to border and quarantine measures “in the coming weeks” as COVID-19 cases decline and vaccination rates increase.
Meanwhile, the hotel quarantine program is subject to a new trial challenging the constitutionality of COVID-19 control measures.
Currently, 14 applicants are in federal court, arguing that mandatory hotel quarantine violates their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they are law-abiding people who can safely quarantine at home.
The applicants in the trial, which is expected to last two more days, are asking the court to scrap the hotel requirement altogether.
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