More than 5,000 turned away: The numbers behind controversial N.L. travel ban

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — From the time Newfoundland and Labrador's pandemic travel ban began on May 4, 2020 to the day it ended almost 14 months later, nearly 5,000 people were denied entry to the province, new figures show.

For lawyer Cara Zwibel, a program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, that could mean nearly 5,000 people had their civil liberties infringed upon.

"I think it's really significant, not just in terms of the number of people who were affected ... but in terms of how basic this right is and how much we really take it for granted," Zwibel said in an interview Tuesday. "As a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, you move around the country, that went without saying. And then all of a sudden we had this shift."

Newfoundland and Labrador's travel ban restricted access to the province for all but essential travellers, such as health-care workers, returning rotational workers and residents themselves. Anyone wanting to enter the province had to fill out a form and get clearance from public health officials.

The ban was deeply controversial, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association helped take it to provincial Supreme Court after Kim Taylor, a Halifax woman, was denied entry to the province in May for her mother's funeral. Justice Donald Burrage upheld the ban, ruling that while it does violate mobility rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that violation was justified.

The association is appealing that decision, and Zwibel said she expects all the appropriate paperwork will be filed by the fall.

The province logged 516,390 visitors between May 4, 2020 and June 31, 2021, the final day the ban was in effect, according to numbers provided to The Canadian Press by the provincial Health Department, though the number includes repeat visitors like rotational workers, essential workers and residents.

Each of those visits required the completion of a form and approval or rejection from a public health official, a department representative said. Of those, 4,986 were denied and another 841 would-be visitors were rejected at the border, the department said. It notes some of the denied requests may have been reconsidered and subsequently approved by the province's chief medical officer of health.

In a normal year before the pandemic, the province typically received more than 500,000 out-of-province tourists.

Amy Hurford, an associate professor of mathematics and biology at Memorial University in St. John's, said modelling a year ago by her and her colleagues projected that the travel ban would dramatically reduce the size of possible COVID-19 outbreaks. Their research, published last month in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found a direct relationship between the travel ban and the province's COVID-19 caseload, she said: if travel was reduced by a certain percentage, the number of possible COVID-19 cases in the province was also reduced by that number.

The model also showed that without the travel ban, there was a "substantial risk of very large outbreaks," she said in an interview Monday.

Some studies claimed travel restrictions would only "delay the inevitable" arrival and spread of the virus, she acknowledged. But the conditions in Newfoundland and Labrador — low caseloads and few areas of significant urban density — were just favourable enough that vaccination was able to kick in before the inevitable occurred, she said.

In another city or province, with closer quarters, higher starting caseloads and ongoing community outbreaks, a travel ban might not have worked like it did in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"A place that sees a lot of commerce, like Toronto, they could have put in travel restrictions and it would have delayed the inevitable but maybe not enough," Hurford said. "Being remote is something that helped."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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