You can’t visit family locally but flying from Mississauga to Miami is no problem

·7 min read

It was easy as one, two, three.

On Thursday, the same day Ontario entered a province-wide stay-at-home order, leaving the country couldn’t have been easier.

Just pick up the phone or log into the Air Canada website. Find a sunny destination outside the country. And voila, a flight from Pearson International Airport to Miami could be booked without a hitch.

That’s exactly what The Pointer attempted Thursday despite Ontario’s local travel restrictions in place until at least February 11.

How could that be? Why are residents allowed to travel to Florida, or many other overseas destinations, but they can’t visit their own family just a few blocks away?

Most would assume, with a pandemic raging and daily case counts continually reaching new highs, that driving to the airport during a province-wide stay-home order would be hard and barriers in place would make booking travel difficult. This is not the case.

Airports, like stores, have increased their COVID-19 protocols, but have not put steps in place to discourage travel. Much of the travel industry including airlines like Air Canada is still operating as if the pandemic is under control, requiring mask wearing, testing and quarantining but encouraging residents to still go on vacation.

Questions about symptoms, plenty of hand sanitizer and the odd thermometer have been put into the mix, yet Ontario airports, including Pearson in Mississauga, aren’t subject to anything you wouldn’t see at the grocery store.

On Wednesday evening, when the Province finally unveiled the details of its stay-at-home order, this was made clear. Nestled among the list of essential reasons to leave the house — exercise, groceries and medical trips — was another option: travel to an airport.

During the lockdown it is not the place of police or bylaw officers in Ontario to ask where exactly someone’s eventual destination from an airport will be. As a result, a trip from the quiet streets of Peel, to the airport then into the sky and, eventually, onto a beach, remains firmly within the rules.

“There are currently no legal barriers to getting on a plane to the U.S. from Pearson, nor have there been since the start of the pandemic,” Ambarish Chandra, associate professor of economic analysis and policy at the University of Toronto, who lists COVID-19 border closures in Canada among his areas of expertise, told The Pointer. “It's not clear that the Province has the power to curtail Canadians' right to foreign travel without suspending their Charter rights.”

Over the holiday season, plenty of politicians took advantage of the loophole. Kamal Khera (Liberal MP Brampton West) and Rod Phillips, the former PC finance minister, were among those caught out and publicly criticized.

One of the questions raised when politicians across the country were caught flying abroad during the holiday season was the issue of entitlement. While those who can afford such luxuries are still able to get on a plane, many suffering financially because of the pandemic or even before, can't even plan a local trip because of the stay-home order. It creates a two-tier reality, critics have said, and many wealthier Canadians have simply paid to avoid the recommendations while putting others at risk.

While the trips demonstrated poor decision making and a selfish attitude toward the rules, the same holidays can still be booked by everyday Ontarians. Public health agencies are begging people not to, but the rules do not actually prohibit it.

Booking a flight on the Air Canada website, for example, you would be hard pressed to find evidence of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5,400 lives in Ontario alone. A small, green bar across the top of the website offers answers to the question, “Where can I travel right now?” but otherwise things look the same.

On Thursday, The Pointer searched for flights from Toronto Pearson Airport to Miami on Friday, January 22 through Air Canada to understand the process. In the various stages of booking the flight, reminders about flexible tickets and changes to the in-flight meal system were the only hints of the public health crisis playing out across the world.

Travel to the United States from January 26 will require a negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours, while the same rules apply to those travelling or returning to Canada, along with a mandatory 14 day quarantine. These rules do not stop travel or prescribe essential reasons, but do add an additional step to the process.

“Other than our regular requirements (i.e. travel documents in order) we do not have any restrictions,” Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Air Canada told The Pointer, referencing the fact federal or provincial governments may have a different response.

They didn’t.

“The Province does not have the legal authority to prohibit international travel,” Ivana Yelich, director of media relations for Premier Doug Ford, told The Pointer. Yelich referenced numerous comments by Ford supporting increased border restrictions for those entering Canada. “International travel is solely the responsibility of the federal government.”

“The Premier’s message is simple, stay home,” she added, when asked if Ford supported additional restrictions on outgoing travel. “We are asking Ontarians to avoid all non-essential travel at this time. Any restrictions on outgoing or incoming travel is the responsibility of the federal government.”

The federal government did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

The Pointer also phoned Air Canada’s booking call centre to specifically ask if there were any barriers or advisories against travelling out of Peel Region, or anywhere else in Ontario, to sit on a beach in Miami. The airline’s booking line, which also handles other customer support, was clogged, with a wait time of 56 minutes on Thursday afternoon, hours after the stay-at-home order came into effect.

Eventually, an agent explained the U.S. and Canadian rules around receiving a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of flying, but said that was “basically the only requirement”. There was no advice offered against travelling or about the dangers of spreading COVID-19 through discretionary trips.

“I'd be surprised if the federal government were to institute any ban on foreign travel either.” Chandra said. “The best they can do is discourage foreign travel which is already happening, both from explicit recommendations and from the need to quarantine for two weeks upon return.”

In short, there is nothing to stop international travel by Canadians as COVID-19 fatigue and the dragging winter test people’s patience. Like so many of the COVID-19 protocols governing residents in Peel, it is about appealing to people’s better nature and commitment to flattening the curve.

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. Public health and elected officials are asking people to stay home and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“With the Provincial Stay at Home Order in effect, it is crucial that residents not leave their homes for anything other than the essentials, like groceries, medical appointments or exercise,” Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, told The Pointer. “This means cancelling or postponing all non-essential activities or going virtual where possible. I know this is frustrating and it’s been a long year and we have all sacrificed a lot. With the arrival of [the] vaccine in Peel, let’s keep pushing and beat COVID-19 together.”

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer