The reopening of the Atlantic bubble has been delayed until May 3, the four Atlantic premiers said in a joint statement released shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday.
They said the decision to delay the opening, originally scheduled for April 19, was based on advice from the region's chief public health offices.
"Given the recent surge in cases of COVID-19 in parts of Atlantic Canada and the emergence of more transmissible forms of the virus, the Council of Atlantic Premiers has agreed to delay the reopening of the Atlantic bubble by at least two weeks, to May 3, 2021," the statement said.
"The premiers will meet during the last week of April to review the status of outbreaks and determine if a further delay to May 10, 2021 is required."
Delay will support regional vaccine rollouts
The premiers said the delay will support a continued focus on addressing local outbreaks and the rollout of vaccination programs across the region.
When the Atlantic bubble reopens, residents of the Atlantic provinces will be able to travel within the region without the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days.
The premiers urged all Atlantic Canadians to adhere to public health measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In an interview Tuesday evening with CBC News, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said it is one of many difficult decisions that have had to be made over the course of the pandemic.
This is what we want to avoid here — an outbreak resulting from the more contagious spread. — Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin
"I count myself with those Islanders and those in the region who hoped for the bubble to be opened soon, but we could only do that when it is safe to do so. And it really does come down to nothing more than the fact that the epidemiology and the advice of the public health officers is that this would not be the right time to open to individual travel beyond our borders."
King said the decision to postpone for two weeks was unanimous among the premiers.
"That should give us a pretty good indication of how things are in the region if things have cooled down a bit, if the curve has slowed a little bit across the country. And that's why we will re-evaluate leading into the third. But we have indicated, of course, that if we need to extend beyond that another week, we will."
Earlier Tuesday, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin said border restrictions would be reintroduced for people crossing from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia due to rising case counts in New Brunswick.
Effective Thursday at 8 a.m. AT, travellers from New Brunswick or Nova Scotians returning home from that province will once again have to self-isolate for 14 days after they enter Nova Scotia.
"This is tough, I know, but it's necessary given what we are seeing across the border and in several other provinces where the cases are increasing rapidly because of the presence of variants," Rankin said.
"This is what we want to avoid here — an outbreak resulting from the more contagious spread."
Higgs acknowledges Edmundston a challenge
In New Brunswick, Premier Blaine Higgs earlier Tuesday said the planned April 19 target reopening date was never set in stone, because the COVID-19 situation could change rapidly.
"For us, it's been the Edmundston issue," Higgs said, speaking of the province's current hot spot for new cases.
New Brunswick's premier noted that he is "keen, like everyone else is," to see the bubble reopen but said the risk of outbreaks spreading has to be managed.
"If we mitigate that with vaccines, that makes it more secure for us to open," Higgs said.
Currently, New Brunswick has 145 active cases.
When officials announced the first Atlantic bubble last June, to take effect July 3, New Brunswick was the only Atlantic province with any active cases of COVID-19, at 16.
As of Tuesday, there were 45 active cases in Nova Scotia, including six new ones. Prince Edward Island has six active cases, and Newfoundland and Labrador added one new case for a total of 11 active cases.
In St. John's, Premier Andrew Furey said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Newfoundland and Labrador "continues to weigh all options" when it comes to lifting travel restrictions with other Atlantic provinces.
"We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 caseloads, as we understand there are concerns about the situation in New Brunswick at this time."
A smaller bubble
Given the relatively low case numbers in Nova Scotia, King was asked Tuesday about the possibility of a bubble just with that province.
Currently, P.E.I.'s only direct connection to the mainland is with New Brunswick via Confederation Bridge. There are no regional flights operating out of the airport, and the seasonal ferry service that connects the Island to Nova Scotia does not start until May 1.
This means that in order for Nova Scotians to come to P.E.I., and vice-versa, the only route is through New Brunswick.
"You have to drive for 20 or 25 minutes to get here from Nova Scotia, and it's hard for us to determine if that car has actually gone directly through," said King.
"It becomes a challenge at the border."
King said he would need more information about how the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border is being controlled before pursuing a two-province bubble.
King said P.E.I. officials have made inquiries about starting up the ferry service early, but the situation is complicated, requiring both permission and funding from Transport Canada. He said he does not know where that negotiation stands.
"Our preference remains an Atlantic bubble when it's safe to do so," said King, adding that logistically it is far easier.
"If this continues on throughout the summer, I think we'll continue to try to find ways, and an open ferry might make that a little bit easier."
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