Airport transport service, Buffalo Limousine, lost about 70 per cent of its business during COVID-19 pandemic. But the company said its luck changed recently, thanks to Canadian snowbirds returning from U.S. sunbelt states who want to avoid Canada's hotel quarantine requirement.
"This is a huge, huge shot in the arm for us, this Canadian snowbird travel," said Carla Boccio, owner of Buffalo Limousine. "It's a godsend."
Since February 22, air passengers entering Canada have been required to quarantine for up to three days in a designated hotel and pay for the cost — up to $2,000. However, travellers entering by land are exempt from the rule.
To avoid the hotel quarantine, some snowbirds are flying to U.S. cities close to the Canadian border — such as Buffalo, N.Y. — and then hiring a ground transport service — such as Buffalo Limousine — to drive them across the Canadian border.
"When Canada imposed that hotel [quarantine], then it was just like our phones were exploding," said Boccio. "What I hear from the majority of these people, it's not even so much the cost, it's like you're in jail … with this hotel quarantine."
CBC News interviewed three airport transport services based in Buffalo and one in Burlington, Vt., which is about 70 kilometres from the Quebec border. The companies said they'll drive Canadians to or across the Canadian border for around $100 US and, for an added fee, the Buffalo companies will drive passengers directly to their homes in Ontario.
Each company said it has seen a boost in business after Canada introduced the hotel quarantine requirement.
Since late February, Buffalo Limousine has, on average, transported 50 customers a day across the Canadian border, increasing its lagging business by around 50 per cent, Boccio said.
"I'm more thankful than I could even put into words."
Buffalo Limousine charges about $120 US to drive a couple from the Buffalo airport across the border to neighbouring Fort Erie, Ont., or Niagara Falls, said Boccio. A trip to downtown Toronto costs around $300 US.
Crossing by land has different rules
The federal government suprised snowbirds abroad when it changed the travel rules on Feb. 22, requiring air passengers entering Canada to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, and spend up to three days of their 14-day quarantine in a hotel to await the test results.
Ottawa introduced the hotel quarantine requirement to discourage international travel and help stop the spread of COVID-19 infections, which are surging due to more contagious variants.
But travellers entering Canada by land face no hotel quarantine requirement. Instead, they must quarantine at home for 14 days and take multiple COVID-19 tests, including one in the U.S. within 72 hours of arrival at the Canadian border.
According to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data, land entries into Canada jumped by 15 per cent during the first three weeks of March, compared to the same period in February (when the hotel quarantine rules were not yet in effect). Those entries include both leisure travellers and essential workers who aren't truck drivers.
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To avoid the hotel quarantine requirement, snowbird Jaroslaw Stanczuk said when he returns home from Florida later this month, he will fly to Buffalo, and take a taxi across the border to his home in Fort Erie, Ont.
Stanczuk, who got the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida, said he's taking the necessary safety precautions during the pandemic and feels the hotel quarantine is a needless step.
"You want me to get a COVID-19 test? I'm happy with that. You want me to get one when I arrive? I'm happy with that. But why punish me with three days of quarantine in a hotel?"
Other snowbirds are also travelling by cab. Since the hotel quarantine rule took effect, Buffalo Airport Taxi said it has driven, on average, 20 to 30 customers a day across the Canadian border, increasing its business by at least 50 per cent.
"They want to go home. They don't want to go to quarantine prison," said Buffalo Airport Taxi manager, Saleman Alwhishah. "It boosted our business tremendously."
Why can U.S. drivers cross the border?
John Arnet, general manager of 716 Limousine in Buffalo, said he's been inundated with requests for transport across the Canadian land border and questions about the rules for entering Canada during the Canada-U.S. land border closure to non-essential traffic.
"Most of the questions are ... 'Can you take us across the border?'" said Arnet. "Yes, we can take you across the border. We're an essential service."
CBSA said that foreign transport workers such as taxi and bus drivers can enter Canada during the border closure, if they establish they're employed as a driver and are performing a service related to their job.
CBC News asked the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for comment about Canadians travelling home by land to avoid the hotel quarantine requirement. The agency did not provide a direct response. Instead, it listed the types of fines and other penalties Canadians can face if they violate quarantine rules.