TORONTO — Ontario pushed the federal government Friday to impose tighter restrictions at land borders, with Premier Doug Ford saying the move was needed to address the threat posed by variants of COVID-19.
Ottawa indicated, however, that it would not impose hotel quarantine requirements at land crossings as requested, suggesting those travellers weren't a major source of infections.
Ford's call to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came as Ontario continues to deal with high COVID-19 cases, 90 per cent of which are now more transmissible variants of concern.
"Too many people are exploiting these weak measures at our land border to get around the hotel quarantine," the premier said.
Ontario wrote formally to Ottawa on Thursday night, asking the federal government to impose mandatory three-day quarantines in hotels for travellers entering Canada at some of the busiest land crossings.
Travellers landing at Canada's international airports already have to stay in a federally approved hotel for three days while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test done on arrival. The hotel stay is part of a 14-day quarantine that can be completed at their destination if they test negative.
Ontario's letter said there have been reports of international travellers booking flights into nearby American airports, taking a taxi to a United States-Canada land crossing and walking or driving across the border.
"These reports are deeply troubling and further illustrate the extreme risk that inadequate border measures pose in the face of deadly COVID-19 variants," the letter said.
Trudeau said Friday that importation of COVID-19 through the borders is "extremely low" and not a major vector for spread. He said provinces could impose their own measures at land crossings if desired.
"We also know that at the borders there are a series of tests, there is a mandatory enforced two-week quarantine that has been effective in controlling the importation of cases," the prime minister said.
Trudeau added that Ontario was also seeking to suspend the arrival of international students in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and said Ottawa was working with the province on the issue.
Ontario's call on land crossings follows a request earlier this week for enhanced measures for interprovincial travellers.
In a letter sent Monday to Ottawa, Ontario said it had closed its boundaries with Quebec and Manitoba to non-essential travel but there are no measures in place to protect provinces from the spread of COVID-19 variants through interprovincial air travel – an area of federal responsibility.
The province asked for mandatory pre-departure PCR testing for all domestic air travellers entering Ontario, an extension to current rules for international passengers seeking entry into Canada.
Iain Stewart, the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Friday that there has been some study of whether or not to limit domestic flights as well as international flights.
"In the range of things considered, we certainly have thought about that topic," he said, responding to a question from Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner, at the House of Commons health committee.
Science experts advising Ontario on the pandemic have said it's important to maintain control over entry into the province as new COVID-19 variants emerge. They have also said, however, that placing more limits on essential workplaces is currently what's needed to reducing high infection rates.
Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto, said many of his snowbird clients are currently taking advantage of the land-border loophole to avoid staying at the quarantine hotels.
He said limo and shuttle services are available in Buffalo, N.Y., that will transport Canadians to Toronto for approximately $250.
"I'm seeing a tremendous amount that are coming through Buffalo, some walking across the Rainbow and Peace Bridges, if you can believe it, and getting picked up on the other side by shuttles, families, friends," he said. "U.S. companies are doing huge business now with door-to-door service."
Ontario reported 3,887 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 21 more deaths linked to the virus.
The Ministry of Health said 2,201 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 – 883 are in intensive care and 632 are on a ventilator.
Later Friday, Ontario's Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission, which had been tasked with examining what went wrong in the province's nursing homes during the pandemic's first wave, submitted its final report to the government.
The commission found Ontario's long-term care homes were unprepared for a pandemic thanks to years of neglect, and sweeping reforms are needed to protect their vulnerable residents in the future.
The province failed to learn lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2003, the commission found.
Poor facility design and resident overcrowding heightened sickness and death in the nursing homes, it said. A severe staffing shortage and a workforce poorly trained in infection control measures compounded the situation.
The commission said new facilities need to be built to address the needs of the province's aging population and adds that the government also needs to reconsider how those nursing homes are managed, with a focus on quality care.
At least 3,768 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19 in Ontario.
- with files from John Chidley-Hill and Mia Rabson.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press