A proposal by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs to extend the Atlantic bubble to include part of Quebec is getting a cool response from his Atlantic colleagues, but the province could still push ahead with dropping travel restrictions for residents of the Gaspésie region, and possibly others.
"We are considering various options for allowing some travel into New Brunswick for those who live close to the Quebec-New Brunswick borders," Higgs said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
"It is possible we could expand the bubble to include the Gaspé and other regions of Quebec, but any decision will be based on an assessment of public health risks" associated with COVID-19, he said.
This went a little further than what Higgs told CBC News Tuesday night, when he said he expected to talk to his colleagues soon about bubbling with the Gaspé and hoped to see the expansion by the end of the week.
Public Safety officials did not respond to a request for information Wednesday about how the logistics would work if Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador do not agree to any expansion of the Atlantic bubble into Quebec.
Friday is also the date Higgs and the other premiers had initially floated when the bubble began July 3 as when they might open up the region to the rest of Canada, but that now appears to be off the table.
All four Atlantic provinces have reported new cases of COVID-19 since they allowed non-essential travellers from within the region to cross borders without requiring a written exemption and a 14-day isolation period. All of the cases are travel-related, although they are related to travel outside the region, according to health officials.
We need more time living with the Atlantic travel bubble before we would consider or feel comfortable with expanding the travel bubble. - Dennis King, P.E.I. premier
P.E.I., which has a cluster of cases at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and is testing hundreds of staff and patients who may have been exposed to an emergency room employee who tested positive after a flight from Toronto, won't even begin to think seriously about expanding the Atlantic bubble before August, said Premier Dennis King.
"We need more time living with the Atlantic travel bubble before we would consider or feel comfortable with expanding the travel bubble to the rest of Canada or provinces outside of the Atlantic region," he said in an emailed statement.
Nova Scotia will make any decisions about potentially expanding the regional bubble to include residents of other Canadian provinces and territories "based on our experience with COVID-19 in the coming days/weeks and the epidemiology at the time," Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness said in an emailed statement on behalf of the province.
"When a decision is made it will be communicated publicly, as has been our process throughout the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.
Parts of Labrador-Quebec border open
Newfoundland and Labrador opened its border to visitors from Fermont, Que. with travel exemptions late last month. Residents of Labrador City and Wabush, and residents of Fermont are permitted to travel only among these three communities, provided they are asymptomatic.
The border checkpoint remains in place to monitor movement and ensure access for residents from these communities only,
Traffic to the province has been relatively low, with 9,900 travel exemptions approved since May 4, but the busiest point of entry has been the Labrador-Quebec border.
More than 400 of the 996 people who entered the province on Tuesday entered through the border between Fermont, and Labrador City, Premier Dwight Ball told reporters during a COVID-19 news conference Wednesday.
But that "doesn't necessarily mean that we would be OK with" New Brunswick allowing in Gaspésie-area residents, Ball said.
"We'll use the decision-making mechanism that has worked for us to get us safely where we are today and that is working with our own officials," he said.
"And, of course, if we get to a point we can see an agreement on this, you know, then we will explore that option. But you know for us, it will be our decision here in Newfoundland Labrador, based on the safety of our residents, and what's a priority for us.
"We take nothing for granted in this pandemic," said Ball, noting officials are trying to avoid a setback, which, he said, would be costly to the economy, and could also have a negative impact on the confidence of citizens. "All of this is balanced with the fact we know some families would like to be reunited sometime this year."
Higgs said he has "some apprehensions" about opening up the region to the rest of the country right now.
Pressure from border communities
He has been under pressure from people separated by the New Brunswick-Quebec border to ease travel restrictions.
More than 400 residents of Campbellton, and the closest Quebec communities of Listuguj First Nation and Pointe-à-la-Croix gathered on the bridge linking the two provinces in May to demonstrate against New Brunswick's travel restrictions.
They called for a bubble to be formed between the communities to allow for essential travel and family reunification.
Darcy Gray, the chief of Listuguj First Nation, had also sent him a letter in May.
Higgs followed up with a call last Friday and, according to Gray, discussed "an initial target date of the 17th of trying to get Listuguj and other nearby communities included in the bubble."
"At no point did the conversation stray towards a bubble not happening. It was just a matter of when," Gray told CBC News.
Recent media reports about Higgs's comments have generated a lot of excitement, said Gray.
"I'm hopeful that, you know, Friday is the day. If it's not, it's going to be a quite a disappointment for, I think, a lot of people around here."
How far into N.B.?
Gray said Higgs never got into the specifics of enforcement during their discussion. He's not sure if Quebec residents would be able to travel to the other Atlantic provinces, or even farther into New Brunswick than just across the J. C. Van Horne Bridge.
"To me, the main concern right now is, you know, we've had a lot of people here that I think just need to reconnect with the other side of the [Restigouche] River, that need to have access to certain [goods] or family members, friends. I think that's the immediate need," he said.
"I'm not worried about, you know, 'Can we go to Moncton? Can we go to Saint John? Can we go to Halifax?' That's totally, you know, a whole other discussion. For me it's, how do we cross that river and start rebuilding this interconnectedness?"
A lot of animosity has been created over the last few months with the restrictions in place, said Gray.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, upwards of 5,000 people a day travelled back and forth freely every day, he said.
Many people have family or friends on the other side, and people from his community do most of their shopping for groceries, clothes, building materials and seasonal supplies in Campbellton or Atholville.
New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said extending New Brunswick's bubble to other Canadians, including residents of border communities, is "being carefully considered."
"Public Health is monitoring what is happening elsewhere in Canada and gathering data to inform this discussion," she said in an emailed statement.