March 30, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Just got home? Well, stay there

Editorial

Hello, snowbirds. Welcome back. Go directly home. Do not go shopping.

That was the message this week from various levels of government, as well as some communities along the Canada-U.S. border.

The federal government, which had previously urged Canadians returning from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks, has now declared that quarantine mandatory. The penalties for those returning to Canada who do not self-quarantine for 14 days could be fines of up to $750,000 or up to six months in jail, according to Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister also had a message for returning travellers: "To anyone who has just come back from a foreign location to Manitoba, please make sure, absolutely sure, that you adhere to the self-isolation recommendations."

Why the suddenly urgent tone? Because, apparently, too many Canadians don’t get it.

As the COVID-19 pandemic expanded, the federal government advised Canadians abroad to return home; between March 14 and March 20, more than a million citizens and permanent residents did so. Unfortunately, many of those travellers could be bringing COVID-19 with them. Many might not even know. And some who suspect they might be infected are not being up front about their symptoms as they seek to re-enter Canada.

And on top of all that, there are many who just don’t seem to care, and are stopping in at stores when they get across the border.

This must stop. Do not go shopping. Go directly home.

All the "physical distancing" in the world won’t have much effect if new cases of COVID-19 enter the country without being identified and isolated.

That the federal government had to invoke the Quarantine Act in an effort to get Canadians returning home to smarten up is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

The problem posed by Canadians returning from abroad — in particular, the wave of "snowbirds" currently surging through highway border crossings — is complex. Many Canadians who began experiencing symptoms of illness abroad have returned to Canada without divulging their symptoms when questioned. These procedures are essentially voluntary, so people might not feel compelled to divulge health information.

This creates a hole in Canada’s COVID-19 containment efforts you could drive an RV through. And unfortunately, many Canadians are doing just that.

A recent report from Brockville, Ont., documented RVs and campers crossing from the U.S. and proceeding to spend the night in a nearby Walmart parking lot. Their owners then went shopping the next morning in local stores, despite government warnings that returning Canadians must self-isolate for 14 days.

The actions of these people — whether motivated by ignorance, selfishness or both — put everyone in those stores, and everyone those people subsequently were in contact with, at risk. That’s how pandemics work.

A sign instructs returning travellers at the Emerson border crossing. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

A sign instructs returning travellers at the Emerson border crossing. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Closer to home, stores in Morris are actively urging Canadians returning from the U.S. not to enter their establishments, with some offering to bring purchases out to the travellers’ vehicles.

Other countries have introduced mandatory temperature screening of all air travellers, which could indicate the presence of COVID-19. Some have imposed similar measures at roadblocks. Given the massive span of the Canada-U.S. border, implementing such a practice at crossings would be difficult.

But as with all attempts to screen for COVID-19, the ability to test for the virus is only as effective as the commitment of the public to take appropriate measures to minimize its spread.

That the federal government had to invoke the Quarantine Act in an effort to get Canadians returning home to smarten up is, quite frankly, embarrassing. The message to homebound Canadians has been clear from the outset:

Welcome back. Go directly home. Do not go shopping.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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