Derek and Lisa Stephenson had accepted they wouldn't see their parents this year.
The Canadian couple lives in Massachusetts and had been denied entry to New Brunswick under COVID-19 travel restrictions.
That meant being unable to support Lisa's mother in her battle with cancer.
"We had resigned ourselves to being away from the family," said Derek Stephenson.
But that changed Friday when a Department of Public Safety official called to tell them the rules had changed, allowing them to come.
"This was a much-welcomed surprise," Derek said.
"We definitely didn't anticipate the province to reassess and make changes."
New Brunswick loosened its rules for visiting family on Friday, which went further than federal restrictions on non-essential travel across the international border.
That change aligns the province's entry rules with federal standards. People from around the world can enter to visit immediate family members, which New Brunswick previously limited to only residents of Canadian provinces and territories.
'I'm just grateful'
Travellers must be approved by the Canadian Border Services Agency and are still required to apply through the New Brunswick Travel Registration Program.
The U.S. land border has been closed since March to stop the spread of COVID-19. Under an exemption created in June, immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents can enter.
After months of advocacy, that definition was recently expanded to include those in a committed relationship, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and adult children.
The Stephensons moved from the Moncton area to the U.S. five years ago when Derek's employer in information security asked him to relocate.
After nearly a year apart due to the pandemic, the Stephensons applied to visit their parents and siblings.
Officials from the Canada Border Services Agency told them they wouldn't have any issues entering the country since they are Canadian citizens. But New Brunswick's travel registration program denied the couple entry.
Public Safety said its guidelines did not permit Canadian citizens living in the U.S. or abroad to visit New Brunswick, even to see immediate family.
The Stephensons were told Friday they will be permitted to enter after reapplying and have made plans to leave in a week to reunite with their parents and siblings.
"The manager had said that they had made quite a few calls [Friday] morning to tears of joy," said Derek.
"It's just put a lot of strain on people local and away. I'm just grateful that they had a look at it and we're able to come back."
Legal issues considered
The changes to the province's mandatory order went into effect on Friday.
Public Safety says international visitors still need to apply and receive confirmation from New Brunswick's travel registration program.
"Government continuously monitors developments and amends its approach accordingly, to balance health, economic and societal concerns," said spokesperson Coreen Enos.
Department staff are reaching out to people who recently applied to visit family and had their applications denied.
The prior restrictions faced scrutiny for making a distinction between residents and non-residents of Canada. Controlling international travel and citizenship falls entirely under federal jurisdiction.
Enos said the revisions are decided by cabinet, after consultation with the all-party committee on COVID-19 and the chief medical officer.
Advice from the office of the attorney general has been requested since the start of the state of emergency, she said.
Changes too late for some
The COVID-19 restrictions on international travel left Carly Fleet separated for months from Sean Bodden, her Trinidadian fiancé.
The federal government released an exemption for family reunification in June, but it left out committed partners who did not qualify as common law spouses.
Bodden and Fleet had been apart for work, which left them unable to reunite.
After more than a hundred days, Fleet left her home on Grand Manan so the couple could reunite in Europe. They navigated the obstacles of limited flights, changing international travel rules and avoided geopolitical unrest by living in Turkey and Portugal.
They were relieved when the Canadian government announced a broadened definition of family in early October that would include Bodden. "We were elated," Fleet said.
'It had to be a mistake'
The federal changes created an application process with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Bodden received approval less than two weeks later and the couple began booking flights and preparing to return to Grand Manan.
But New Brunswick denied Bodden's travel registration application with the province.
"To find that out, I was just completely shocked," Fleet said. "I thought it had to be a mistake."
After emails and phone calls, the couple challenged the decision and was finally able to receive approval, through an exemption, with a new provincial application.
The couple is back home and self-isolating on Grand Manan after the pandemic put their future on hold.
"It's still a bit surreal to be honest," Fleet said.
She said their experience returning to New Brunswick would have been much easier had Friday's changes already been in place.
"It definitely would have been a lot less stressful."