The push to create a northern bubble to protect the region against intercity and interprovincial travel during the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn both support and criticism from nearby municipalities.
Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger announced on Feb. 3 that the province agreed to explore the idea of setting up checkpoints on Highway 69 to stymie non-essential travel from COVID-19 hotspots to the north.
Some municipalities expressed their full support, stating that they have been pushing for similar measures for months now, while others believe that checkpoints introduce more challenges than potential benefits.
“I support the idea of a Northern bubble in theory but the reality of it is impractical. Many northern residents need to travel south to see medical specialists and for a variety of other valid reasons,” said Espanola Mayor Jill Beer.
“It would be better if people just followed the public health guidelines that already exist rather than create another layer of rules and confusion.”
Beer added that most people are following the rules, but the people who aren’t following them “are still not going to follow the rules.”
“More general enforcement is required, maybe with accompanying fines. I think we are past the point of education,” she said.
“The stores that are open should be requiring people to wear masks properly and not allow them in with masks under their noses or under their chin.”
As a teacher, the mayor of Espanola also questioned why there aren’t more news stories about the spread of COVID-19 in schools throughout the region.
“In the past three weeks the number of cases in the 19 and under category have doubled compared to the whole start of the pandemic,” she said.
“Teachers and union perspective about safety in the classrooms is completely different than the board offices perspective. Now with the UK variant coming north, more teachers are afraid.”
Public Health Sudbury and Districts confirmed that a strain of the COVID-19 UK variant B117 has been identified in its service area.
On top of that, three additional positive cases of the virus in the region have been identified as potential “variants of concern.” Two of those cases were related to international travel, and one is a close contact of a confirmed case.
The health unit said that the cases are completing extended quarantine and there has been no evidence that COVID-19 variants are circulating locally.
“I know that there’s a lot more concern about the variants in the news these days and what the impact might be,” said Al MacNevin, mayor of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI).
“The medical experts and public health officials are saying that if you follow the same rules – wash your hands, wear your mask, and keep distancing – it will help protect us from the variants, as well.”
MacNevin said that there are a lot of challenges associated with establishing checkpoints, including the cost and the logistics.
He noted it wouldn’t do much good to simply stop traffic on Highway 69 when there are different routes people can take to travel into Northern Ontario.
“There are people, not just in southern Ontario but in Sudbury and all over the north, that have cottages that they own on the Island,” he said.
“Our population grows from 2,700 to 5,000 in the summer. A lot of those people don’t just come and stay in overnight accommodation or camping. They own property here and they pay taxes and they vote. To tell them they can’t come to their property, to check it out or even to stay, well, we saw that was a problem during the first wave.”
Elliot Lake Mayor Dan Marchisella said he approached his local MP about the possibility of creating a northern bubble at least six months ago.
“I requested that we look at shutting down both Highway 17 west and Highway 69 north to non-essential travel, and we’ve discussed it at our emergency management meetings,” he said.
“I never got a response back, but we’ve had a lot of pressure and questions from residents as to why we’re allowing people to travel from COVID-19 hotspots to Northern Ontario for vacations and visiting family. The virus doesn’t travel, people travel.”
Bigger hasn’t approached Marchisella yet, but if he did, Marchisella would be in full support of the idea.
“At our emergency management meetings, we discussed logistics and how it would work. I was in the military, and the military is totally set up for doing TCPs (traffic control posts). The OPP have trained with our military to do that,” he said.
“In order for the military to do that, it would have to be a federal order. OPP would be able to do it, but they would have to have a mandate from the province. They set up TCPs when they do RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere) checks.”
Marchisella said that to accomplish something like this, it’s best if the pressure is coming from larger urban centres in the region.
“I am glad Brian is taking this step. Sudbury and North Bay are the major crossroads in Northern Ontario, and there has to be commitment from their councils and municipalities to make this happen,” he said.
“This would not be a permanent setup, and people need to understand that this is for the time being. If you’re not traveling for medical reasons or delivering essential supplies, then stay home for a couple weeks.”
He added that although Canadians have the right to mobility in the constitution, as soon as a state of emergency is declared, those rights “go out the window.”
“You have a right to listen so that everyone else stays safe,” he said.
“This is about the whole population, not about individuals with hurt feelings because they can’t do what they want.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star