August 15, 2020

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Better to play it safe with provincial borders

As cases rise to the west, Manitoba should reconsider easing travel restrictions

Opinion

With COVID-19 spreading faster in Saskatchewan than it has for weeks, Manitoba may want to consider reinstating its 14-day self-isolation rule for those travelling here from western provinces.

Saskatchewan reported 56 new cases of the disease over the weekend. The province reported five more cases Tuesday, bringing its total active cases to 76. Last week, Saskatchewan health officials issued several public health notices, warning people of outbreaks in various parts of the province.

"We are seeing more positive cases of COVID-19 popping up around the province, reminding us that COVID-19 is everywhere and has no boundaries," Dr. David Torr from the Saskatchewan Health Authority said in a release Friday. "Across Saskatchewan, we need to be more vigilant when it comes to preventing the spread of the virus."

Even in Alberta, a province with a much higher case load per capita than Manitoba, the number of active cases has been on the rise, including an outbreak last week at an Edmonton hospital that resulted in five deaths.

Chart showing growth of reported cases across the provinces. Indexed to the one hundredth case.

Last month, Manitoba lifted its 14-day self-isolation requirement for anyone entering the province from Northwestern Ontario and the three western provinces. Manitoba decided to "bubble" with those jurisdictions because of a decline in daily case numbers in those parts of the country. Travel Manitoba is now actively promoting Manitoba as a tourism destination for western Canadians.

But with cases spiking again in some areas of those provinces, is it wise for Manitoba to maintain that open-border policy?

Like most decisions around this pandemic, it's not an easy call to make. Society has to accept that no matter how slowly and carefully economies reopen, there will be more cases. Test positivity rates will likely rise and sadly, there will be more deaths. The economy cannot remain closed forever. Another complete shutdown would devastate the country economically and socially, leaving governments virtually bankrupt.

Trying to find the right balance between reopening the economy and minimizing the spread of the virus is one of the toughest decisions governments have to make. In many cases, there are no right answers; just judgment calls based on the best available data.

However, if cases continue to climb in Saskatchewan, the public health cost of allowing people to travel freely between provinces may start to outweigh the benefits.

The upside to allowing unfettered travel is it generates much-needed tourism dollars for all jurisdictions. It also helps replenish empty government coffers. When COVID-19 numbers are low in all participating provinces and the risk of spreading the disease interprovincially is manageable, it’s an easy trade-off.

Trying to find the right balance between reopening the economy and minimizing the spread of the virus is one of the toughest decisions governments have to make. In many cases, there are no right answers; just judgment calls based on the best available data.

But at what point does maintaining open borders cause more harm than economic good?

If Saskatchewan continues to see significant community spread of the virus, maintaining unrestricted travel between the provinces could be very dangerous for Manitoba. All it would take is one or two missteps by cross-border travellers and Manitoba’s COVID-19 picture could change drastically. Is it worth it for the modest tourism dollars?

If eliminating self-isolation rules results in a major spike of cases in Manitoba – forcing public health officials to shut down some businesses again and delay the reopening of schools in the fall — the tourism dollars would obviously not be worth it.

The most important thing for Manitoba now is to reopen its economy and allow businesses and not-for-profits to operate as close to capacity as possible. More people need to get back to work.

The main focus for government should be to reopen schools in September. Kids, especially young children, need to get back to the classroom. Those are priorities. Unrestricted travel between Manitoba and western provinces, while good for the economy, is not. That’s why the 14-day self-isolation rule is still in place for most of Ontario and all of Quebec, which continue to see regular outbreaks of the disease. The economic gains of opening up unrestricted travel with those jurisdictions is not worth it.

If cases and test positivity rates continue to rise in Saskatchewan, and Manitoba waits too long to reinstate travel restrictions, the damage could be severe and long-lasting. Erring on the side of caution is looking increasingly like the right thing to do on this one.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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