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Canada announces new hotel quarantine measures for overseas travellers

The federal government has announced new restrictions for international travellers in an effort to contain and combat the COVID-19 virus. These restrictions do not ban international travel outright. Instead, they create additional barriers to those wishing to take a trip overseas.  

New rules will require international travellers to quarantine in government-operated hotels after arriving back in or entering Canada for the first time. 

Experts estimate that the cost for the mandatory three-day stay will come with a whopping $2,000 price tag.  Travellers who test positive for the coronavirus while at the facility we will be required to spend the remaining eleven-day isolation period, all at their own expense. It’s a change that is expected to take effect in the coming weeks. 

This may be too fast for Canadians who find themselves abroad already, like the so-called snowbirds (retirees who spend time in vacation homes south of the border).  Many of them have been left in a difficult predicament, deciding if they should rush home to avoid the impending extra costs.  

But others wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner. With the global pandemic in full swing, and nearly a year after a state of emergency was first declared, there are obvious questions about why such travel restrictions were not implemented much earlier, if they are indeed necessary to combat the virus. Perhaps, for example, they would have been more effective prior to the holiday season, before some politicians were able to enjoy their sun-soaked vacations abroad.  

There are also practical questions about the restrictions themselves. Tacking on an additional expense to travel may preclude many lower and middle-class people from going overseas. However, it may be less likely to deter the affluent and wealthy from doing the same.  

It also makes little sense as to why those with adequate self-isolation arrangements in place, such as those who live alone or who have travelled with those in their immediate household, should be required to use a hotel. 

It seems safe to say that the potential for viral exposure could increase in a hotel scenario where more people are sure to be coming and going.  If concerns about travellers breaking quarantine while under self-isolation are the impetus for this change, one would conclude that simply bolstering enforcement measures to ensure that they do not break the rules would be the avenue of least resistance and most effectiveness.  

Moreover, the rationale behind an initial three-day quarantine period is suspect, given that the 14-day incubation period appears to be well-established at this point in the pandemic.  

All things considered, we have to wonder if this new restriction will be more effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19 or at filling the federal government’s coffers.    

But this restriction could be just the tip of the iceberg. Questions about how to curb travel between provinces have been coming up more and more frequently. Residents of British Columbia have expressed concern after popular tourist destinations, like Whistler, have become the latest hotspots for viral transmission.  

Some have suggested implementing a 14-day isolation period, subject to the same restrictions, for those travelling between provinces.  This, however, has been met with considerably more resistance than the international travel restriction proposals. 

The reason for this may be rooted in our understanding of our rights as Canadian citizens. The mobility rights of Canadians are a protected right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 6 guarantees that every Canadian citizen has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada. It guarantees our right to move between provinces. It also guarantees our right to travel to international destinations – and to return home when we are finished.  

For this reason, the proposed travel restrictions will very likely be considered clear breaches of our Charter protected mobility rights. However, that does not mean that they will be struck down.  

The government can violate Charter rights and get away with it, so long as those violations are justified. They will attempt to do this by using section 1 of the Charter to show that the travel restrictions are reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. If a court decides that the government has made its case for justifying its actions, the breaches will be deemed to be constitutionally valid.  If they do not, however, the restrictions will be unconstitutional.  

It is very likely that the government will attempt to justify these breaches as a necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to cut down on transmission. Whether this argument will succeed is a matter yet to be seen.  

After all, in order for any court to determine the constitutionality of this issue, a lawsuit must be commenced and the matter must be brought before the courts.