Vaccinated Ontario couple say they fought 'stupid with stupid' to get out of border quarantine order

·4 min read
The United States opened up its land border to non-essential travel, including at the Thousand Islands border crossing in Lansdowne, Ont., on Nov. 8. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
The United States opened up its land border to non-essential travel, including at the Thousand Islands border crossing in Lansdowne, Ont., on Nov. 8. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

What began for Eric and Kerri Langer as a quick trip to check on their New York property turned into a week-long struggle to reverse an unexpected quarantine order, all because their ArriveCAN app didn't load when they tried to cross the border on their return home.

Their "ridiculous" problem ended with a "ridiculous" solution, the fully vaccinated Cobourg, Ont., couple said. On Thursday they found themselves driving back into the United States and then re-entering Canada so they could re-show their proof of vaccination papers to an officer.

The second time around, their papers were accepted and they were no longer required to quarantine.

"Look it, we had to fight stupid with stupid here," Eric Langer said while driving home afterwards.

The couple's experience is one of many that CBC News has reported on in recent months that demonstrate ongoing confusion and skepticism surrounding Canada's land border rules.

CBC/Radio-Canada
CBC/Radio-Canada

This past summer, several travellers reported getting robocalls reminding them to quarantine even if they weren't required to. One person was fined more than $6,000 when he forgot his email password at the border and was unable to retrieve his negative test results. And in October, a Toronto man said he'd been sent other people's test results and personal information even though he hadn't travelled for months.

"In the court of law, we would have a right to defend ourselves," Kerri Langer said. "Here, you're guilty and there is no way of proving your innocence."

'There's no information. It's crazy'

The Langers entered the U.S. last weekend to visit their Lake Placid home for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They said they made sure to be well versed on Canada's travel rules and kept the trip under 72 hours so they wouldn't be required to show a negative COVID-19 test result.

But when they pulled up to the Thousand Islands border crossing to return home Monday morning, the ArriveCAN app with their proof of vaccination wouldn't load on Eric's phone, he said. The officer refused to look at their printed documents and ordered they quarantine for two weeks.

As a teacher at a short-staffed elementary school, Kerri said taking that much time off work wasn't an option. So, when they got home, Eric started making calls to elected officials, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

"The resolution should have been somebody calls to verify that we are indeed vaccinated," Eric said. "Boom. The quarantine is lifted. But there's nobody. There's no information. It's crazy."

After a few days of persistent phone calls, he said he reached a CBSA supervisor who advised that even though they were under a quarantine order, they were allowed to drive into the U.S. and back again — a rule the agency confirmed to CBC News. If they showed an officer the right documentation, the order would be lifted.

"I think the ridiculousness of today is that I couldn't get in my car and drive to the [grocery store], but I could get into my car and drive across the border and that was OK," Kerri said.

Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary who spent 15 years as a CBSA officer, said this case exemplifies the issues raised in the auditor general's scathing report this week about the federal government's handling of its border during the pandemic.

"The rules change. How they're enforced changes. Interpretation of these rules is dependent on the officer's location, and all in all, it really does nothing to safeguard or protect Canadians," Sundberg said.

"What it does do is cause extreme frustration and understandable hard feelings."

CBSA accepting in-person documents, minister says

Although the Langers aren't sure why their second time around was a success, a couple of factors were at play this week that could provide an explanation.

Eric said when they were crossing back into Canada on Thursday they were also informed by an officer that the ArriveCAN app was down and therefore printed documentation was acceptable, regardless of the rules.

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed that the service disruption will run until Tuesday, as the app is undergoing a scheduled update.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Also, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino had faced questions from opposition parties a few days before, on Monday afternoon, in the House of Commons.

"Let us talk about the ArriveCAN app that is supposed to protect Canadians but is actually making things worse at the border," Conservative health critic Luc Berthold said.

"People are being misinformed. No one is answering the telephone to help them. Seniors without smartphones cannot travel. We are hearing stories of mandatory quarantines for triple-vaccinated people."

In response, Mendicino said he'd directed CBSA to accept in-person information at the border, as well as on the ArriveCAN app.

The CBSA told CBC News on Friday night that the ArriveCAN app remains mandatory for all land travellers, but they can now show a printed receipt at the border if they don't have a smartphone or mobile data.

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