TORONTO — Robyn Skrepnyk says she thought the federal government’s suspension of the vaccine mandate for domestic and outbound travel would finally allow her to use an $800 airline credit for a summer vacation abroad.
But even after the new rules go into effect Monday, Skrepnyk doesn’t see herself straying too far from her Edmonton home anytime soon.
The 14-day quarantine that unvaccinated Canadians must complete after re-entering the country has proved prohibitive for the international escape Skrepnyk had hoped for, she said. Although she is allowed to travel more freely within Canada, Skrepnyk said there are no domestic destinations she would like to fly to.
“I may have four weeks of vacation from work, but I can’t take three weeks in a row to go on holiday abroad for a week,” said Skrepnyk, who chose not to get vaccinated. “I’ll just take my vacation, I guess, and stay home hoping I can get my money back.”
While experts expect easing Canadian travel rules to be a boon to the domestic tourism industry, they note that ongoing requirements for unvaccinated Canadians crossing the border could limit their ability to roam abroad.
The vaccine mandate was lifted Monday for domestic travelers on passenger planes, trains and buses. Federally regulated airline and airport workers are also allowed to return to work after taking unpaid leave due to their vaccination status.
Unvaccinated Canadians traveling abroad must be quarantined for another 14 days upon return. They must also undergo COVID-19 testing before their flight, upon arrival and on the eighth day of their quarantine. Daily COVID-19 self-assessments must be done through the ArriveCan app, and screening officers can check in via email, phone or visits.
Meanwhile, most foreigners who have not been stung continue to be denied entry.
Marty Firestone, president of insurance company Travel Secure, predicted that the regulatory changes will result in a dramatic increase in domestic travel as a wave of unvaccinated Canadians look to explore their own country.
While this is good news for Canada’s pandemic-ravaged tourism industry, this new segment of eligible fliers could exacerbate the blockade at airports, Firestone said.
He fears that the quarantine and testing requirements in particular will cause complications and long queues at customs.
“I think it’s going to confuse things even more,” he said. “They did a strange thing by letting you leave unvaccinated, but no change to come back. It’s going to be a nightmare waiting to happen.”
Government officials have repeatedly said COVID-19 restrictions are not responsible for airport congestion and flight delays, insisting any revisions were made in the interest of public health rather than ease of travel.
“While the suspension of domestic vaccine mandates reflects an improved public health situation in Canada, the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve and circulate in Canada and worldwide,” Tammy Jarbeau, spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said in an email.
“Given this context, and because vaccination coverage and virus control varies significantly in other countries, current border vaccination requirements remain in place.”
dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, was skeptical of the public health benefits of forcing returning unvaccinated travelers to quarantine for 14 days. He noted that this is longer than the isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19 in many parts of Canada.
Viruses don’t recognize boundaries, Chagla said, so the risk of flying an unvaccinated person from Toronto to Montreal isn’t materially different from a trip from Toronto to New York. There’s also not much reason to believe that quarantine requirements will prevent people from contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus at a local location or gathering, he added.
While research shows that COVID-19 vaccines provide significant protection against serious illness, Chagla said emerging evidence suggests that two doses and a booster offer little protection against Omicron infection.
Given what we know about how the virus evolves, potential new variants will likely be better at evading immunity, he said.
“The variants will somehow get to vaccinated people,” he said. “The bottom line is that everyone should be able to get across the border, and the existing systems really don’t add much.”
Unvaccinated travelers should also be aware of border restrictions at their destination, said Richard Vanderlubbe, CEO of travel agency Tripcentral.ca.
Entry requirements for unvaccinated visitors, such as mandatory COVID-19 testing, in other countries are often complex and subject to change at short notice, Vanderlubbe said.
He said his agency has spent a large portion of its marketing budget keeping clients informed about these rules. But for the foreseeable future, Vanderlubbe said, it may be wise to choose the most flexible option when making travel arrangements, rather than sticking to the lowest fare by default.
“It should perhaps be a more considered purchase than it has been in the past,” he said. “But nothing will change, especially for vaccinated Canadians. And for unvaccinated Canadians, there are more options.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 21, 2022.