Canada dropping travel mask mandate and ending COVID-19 border and quarantine restrictions
OTTAWA -- The federal government has announced it is dropping all COVID-19 border restrictions for anyone entering Canada, including: proof of COVID-19 vaccination, quarantine and isolation requirements as well as all pre- or on-arrival COVID-19 testing.
Canada is also making the ArriveCan application optional, and is lifting the mask mandate and health check requirements for travellers on planes and trains.
Declaring the imminent end of these restrictions—effective Oct. 1— marks a major milestone in Canada's pandemic response.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and other relevant ministers spoke about the lifting of pandemic precautions Monday morning in Ottawa.
"We've always maintained that the extraordinary measures we introduced at our borders and on airplanes, trains and boats were temporary and that we would adjust them as the situation changes. Today we're doing just that," Alghabra said. "We're taking another step to returning to the normal travel that connects families, workers, and our communities."
Deciding to allow the special orders that for months have upheld Canada's special pandemic authorizations under the Quarantine Act to expire means:
- Foreign nationals won't need to be vaccinated to enter the country;
- Incoming travellers to major airports won't be subject to random mandatory COVID-19 tests;
- Unvaccinated Canadians will no longer have to isolate when they return and if someone is mid-isolation as of Oct. 1 they won't have to complete the remainder;
- Travellers will not have to monitor or report if they develop COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival;
- Submitting public health information through the ArriveCan app prior to landing will become optional; and
- It'll no longer be mandatory to wear a face mask while travelling on planes or trains.
Cruise ship measures are also being lifted, though passenger and crew protection guidelines will remain to "align with the approach used in the United States."
Officials said that while Canada is lifting the mask mandate, travellers are still "strongly recommended" to wear high-quality and well-fitting masks and make "informed decisions" when travelling.
The government is reminding travellers that they should not do so if they have COVID-19 symptoms, and they will have to still follow any provincial or territorial requirements.
COVID-19 will remain one of the communicable diseases listed in the Quarantine Act, and travellers who are sick upon arrival in Canada are being asked to inform a staff member or border services officer, as they "may then be referred to a quarantine officer who will decide whether the traveller needs further medical assessment," according to a government statement.
Foreign nationals will still be required to meet the entry requirements under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and will have to provide appropriate travel and immigration documentation in order to be eligible to enter Canada.
"The Government of Canada will maintain the ability to re-establish certain border measures should they be required in the future to protect Canadians from the importation of new variants of concern or other emerging public health threats," Duclos said.
WHY IS CANADA DOING THIS NOW?
The government says the removal of these border measures is the result of modelling indicating that Canada has "largely passed" the peak of the Omicron wave of infections; Canada's high vaccination and lower hospitalization and death rates; as well as the availability of boosters, rapid tests, and COVID-19 treatments.
However, in his opening remarks, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo cautioned that Canada may be seeing "an early sign of a resurgence" of infections as the fall season begins and is advocating for staying on top of booster doses as well as continued mask-wearing in indoor and crowded settings.
Asked how the government is reconciling concerns over the potential of an uptick in cases in the coming months with the decision to lift all entry and masking requirements, Duclos said that while COVID-19 is still very much present—suggesting looking no further than any hospital—the data indicates that the rate of importation of cases through the border is "insignificant."
He cited "difficulties" airline staff have faced in trying to enforce measures like masking, saying Canada has decided to move away from a forced approach, suggesting most people will likely still opt to wear a mask.
Duclos also said that the government is leaving open "all possible options" in terms of reinstating public health measures, if needed.
Facing his own questions during a separate press conference on the latest post-Fiona Atlantic Canada cleanup efforts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped short of saying that the pandemic is over, as U.S. President Joe Biden has said. Though, he said that what experts have told the federal government is that "these border measures were no longer effective, or no longer justified in the circumstance that we're in right now."
Seeking to downplay suggestions already coming from Conservative MPs that the election of Pierre Poilievre as their new leader is the driving force behind this change given his advocacy for dropping COVID-19 mandates, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier told reporters on Monday that: "it's not politicians who got us here today."
"It's Canadians who rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated. You did your part, you got Canada to a better place," she said.
Reacting to the news, Poilievre chalked the change of policy up to "constant pressure."
"None of the science changes October 1 but because of you, Trudeau has to. Let's keep it up," he said.
The NDP are calling for the government to offer more details about its rationale for lifting travel restrictions, saying that New Democrats welcome the changes “so long as they are justified by health science and explained transparently to Canadians.
“They must clearly explain how today's decisions are based on public health science -- not political pressure. The Liberals have fallen short on transparency when it comes to pandemic travel restrictions. Canadians deserve to know what changed and why lifting measures is warranted,” said NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach in a statement.
Welcoming the decision, Canadian Airports Council President Monette Pasher said the council is "very pleased that our members and industry partners will soon be back to normal operations.
"This decision will also help our industry get back on track to becoming a globally competitive one, which will improve our tourism and travel industry overall," Pasher said.
And, critics of the government’s winter imposition of a vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers, the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, said it is glad to see this measure come to an end, but noted the U.S. still has a role to play.
“While the Canadian government’s announcement today to end the restrictions on October 1st is welcomed and will help alleviate some of the driver shortage issues by allowing some drivers to return to cross border work, we still need the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security to reciprocate so the Canada-U.S. land border can be fully open again for trade,” said council president Mike Millian in a statement. “We will continue to reach out to our friends south of the border and encourage the entry restrictions to end for those entering the U.S. as well.”
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF ARRIVECAN?
After months of defending the at-times glitchy application and insisting it was a "critical tool" despite pressure from the travel industry and opposition MPs to scrap it, on Monday ministers sought to defend changing their position.
"To be direct about it, now that ArriveCan will be optional, that will actually be a more straightforward change, because it will be at the choice of the traveller to use that technology," said Mendicino.
The app however, is not going away entirely.
ArriveCan rolled out early in the pandemic to help the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) process travellers more efficiently. Its use and functions have evolved over the two years since.
While air carriers will no longer need to validate that travellers have filled out the vaccination and quarantine portions of form before boarding, the "advance declaration" feature will remain an option for Canadians who'd prefer to enter that information digitally.
By being able to submit customs and immigration declarations prior to arrival, the government says this option will save Canadians time at the airport.
"I know that there's various anecdotes out there, some people who were very frustrated and others who have said that their experience was actually quite smooth," Mendicino said.
"Early data shows that using the Advance CBSA Declaration in ArriveCAN cuts the amount of time a traveller spends at a kiosk by roughly one third, and over 30 per cent of travellers arriving at the airports are already using it," said the government in a statement.
This feature is already available at Pearson as well as at the Vancouver and Montréal international airports. It will soon be offered at the Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Billy Bishop Toronto City, Ottawa, Québec City, and Halifax international airports "in the coming months."
The government is also pledging that CBSA will continue looking for ways to speed up travellers’ entry, including exploring other optional features within ArriveCan to provide travellers with access to border wait times and other functions.