MORRIS — The signs are high-contrast, at eye level and difficult to miss. Bold, white letters set against a red background spell out a word of caution and a plea to customers stopping at stores along Highway 75: Do not enter if you have been travelling.
Business owners in rural communities south of Winnipeg have posted the notices on their front doors in a bid to keep Manitobans returning from the United States off their sales floors and away from staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They’re not taking that seriously, and that’s a really big problem," said Pat Schmitke, owner of Bigway Foods in Morris. "If they happen to be bringing this virus with them from a foreign country, we really don’t want it in our community."
Schmitke has owned the medium-sized grocer just off Highway 75 — which connects Winnipeg to the Emerson border crossing — for 11 years.
The number of out-of-town customers has increased dramatically since last Friday, when the federal government announced the closure of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel, Schmitke said.
"The people who are coming back from the states — snowbirds — and there’s been a ton of them in the last little while," he said. "They’ve been stopping here and picking up the essential items. If they’ve been in the states for two or three months, there’s nothing in the fridge when they get home.
"They’re either not understanding or they don’t care that they should be self-isolating themselves."
All returning international travellers have been directed by the federal government to go directly home and head into self-isolation for 14 days — that means no stopping for groceries or visiting stores once on Canadian soil.
"They’re not taking that seriously, and that’s a really big problem. If they happen to be bringing this virus with them from a foreign country, we really don’t want it in our community." — Pat Schmitke, owner of Bigway Foods in Morris
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland doubled down on the directive Wednesday morning, announcing a mandatory 14-day isolation period for international travellers, including those returning from the United States, to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Canada. The formal quarantine took effect at midnight Thursday and citizens found in violation of the mandated isolation can face fines and arrest.
Canadians began flocking back to the country at the federal government’s request that people head home, and retirees who have spent the winter in places like Arizona, Texas and Florida — colloquially referred to as snowbirds — have also begun their migration north.
In a town of 1,800 people, it’s easy to know those who are just passing through, Schmitke said, and he can spot a snowbird by their suntan. Schmitke said employees will ask customers who have come from south of the border to politely leave the store and instead call in to place an order for staff to fill and run out to their vehicle.
According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, 959,600 Canadians and 43,890 permanent residents returned to Canada between March 14 and March 20. A CBSA spokesman said the agency was unable to provide statistics for the Emerson crossing due to resource constraints related to the COVID-19 response. At the crossing Wednesday, temporary highway signs notified drivers of the mandatory isolation period and border agents provided information to travellers about recommended COVID-19 precautions and potential fines if the mandatory quarantine was not respected.
Rural Municipality of Emerson-Franklin Reeve David Carlson said residents in his community are not too concerned about travellers balking quarantine as most choose to bypass Emerson due to construction.
"Any snowbirds who live in the community, that might be a bit of a concern for some people. The one good thing here is that we know who they are." — Emerson-Franklin Reeve David Carlson
"Any snowbirds who live in the community, that might be a bit of a concern for some people," Carlson said. "The one good thing here is that we know who they are."
Premier Brian Pallister appealed to travellers Tuesday to go directly home from the border and avoid public places.
"I am hearing reports that some are not adhering to the self-isolation recommendations. 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," Pallister said. "They are very important for your protection. They are very important for the protection of others.
"Stay in and stay out of the company of others you may infect, because that is the right thing to do."
— with files from The Canadian Press
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.