We’ve all heard mixed messages about travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as regions begin to reopen and welcome travellers again.
While some companies are assuring eager travellers that it is safe to explore the country through various safety measures put in place, many epidemiologists are cautioning Canadians who may have caught the travel bug.
As Canada reopens, the country has seen spikes in COVID-19 cases, with many of them being linked to hotels, restaurants and bars. Tourism businesses are expressing concern about what a surge of cases could mean for them.
Though airports, airlines, hotels and expedition tours have implemented many measures to make travelling as safe as possible during such unprecedented times, is it enough?
The first stop in your trip: The airport
Out on the West Coast, the Vancouver Airport is looking quite different. The number of flights have drastically dropped, with traffic dropping by 90 per cent amid the pandemic.
Check-in counters are separated by sheets of plexiglass and sanitation stations are dotted around the terminal, being used by mask-donning travellers. The number of people allowed in the airport has also been limited, with only those who are traveling, working or dropping something off allowed inside the building.
“I will never forget the day I heard there were a couple of cases of a new virus in China,” says Robyn McVicker, vice president of operations and maintenance at the Vancouver Airport Authority. “As a Canadian, I remember SARS being a huge deal to us. So we had immediate protocols for pandemic responses that we started to think about and we started to put those in place in January.”
As the government of Canada has instituted temperature checks, all passengers must go through this process before boarding a plane. For international travellers coming into Canada, a health form must be filled out regarding their 14-day quarantine plans.
“I have noticed that people are a little bit kinder to each other right now,” says McVicker. “They’re recognizing that we are trying to ensure that physical distancing is available in the terminal wherever possible and they are being patient. It’s great to see.”
To educate passengers on the changes they can expect during their travel experience, the airport has created a multi-layer program called YVR TAKEcare designed to help people move through the airport safely and with confidence. In March, the provincial government also launched a new app to help provide people with latest information and help them navigate questions they may have surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we began to do the operational response to the pandemic in January, I started to realize that our lives were changing, so I wondered how we could take this opportunity to reimagine the airport of the future,” says McVicker. “How do we build from the ashes a new airport experience?”
Rising from the ashes, Project Phoenix was born.
This project aims to introduce a completely touchless, curb-to-cloud, biometric journey through the airport. The goal, McVicker explains, is to have “every single process in the airport” use touchless technology, from facial verification scans to waiting in line.
As the days go on, McVicker says she is starting to see more traffic come back to the Vancouver Airport. Airlines are investing to put aircrafts back on routes and domestic travel has started to increase.
Though McVicker says she hasn’t been on a flight since March, she wants to get on a plane again as soon as she can.
“People are getting used to this new normal right now, and we can now start to encourage them to travel again,” she says. “Our job is to make sure that when people do travel, they know the airport is safe and we’ve done everything we can to support them.”
On the airplane or train
Hopping on an airplane and sitting in close proximity to others may make travellers nervous, but Air Canada is implementing measures to help limit the spread of the virus.
For example, the Air Canada CleanCare+ program highlights the implementation of high-efficiency particulate air filters on every aircraft that ensures complete changes of air every two to three minutes. Modern aircrafts are engineered to constantly scrub and refresh air 20 to 30 times per hour, which is significantly more than the five to 10 air exchanges per hour seen in a typical office.
“This is a key reason why there has been no reports of sustained disease outbreak clusters onboard flights,” says Pascale Déry, Air Canada’s director of media relations.
The airline has also been at the forefront of mitigation strategies. Air Canada was the first in both North and South America requiring passengers to get temperature checks before bording, the first airline to make masks mandatory for employees in North America and the first Canadian airline to begin to explore rapid COVID-19 testing in an aviation environment with Spartan Bioscience, an Ottawa-based biotechnology leader.
While onboard, all passengers and crew must wear masks throughout the duration of the flight, and every passenger can expect to receive a care kit that contains sanitizing wipes, gloves, a mask and a bottle of water.
On July 15, Air Canada’s chief medical officer Jim Chung issued a letter calling on the federal government to ease quarantine restrictions that were unchanged since March. He is proposing science-based alternatives with the aim of striking a better balance for travellers, public health and the Canadian economy.
“Canadians have sacrificed a lot. As a country, we have managed to flatten the curve to the point where we have manageable and relatively low community transmission levels,” says Chung. “We are at a point where we can certainly start looking at opening up border restrictions.”
Given the challenges in the United States in controlling the virus, Chung says he is not proposing relaxing border restrictions with our southern neighbours. Instead, he explains that we can look into implementing safe travel corridors with countries in Europe that have comparable counts and public health infrastructure to Canada, such as Germany and Belgium.
By doing so, those countries can still manage their cases and trace them effectively. The risk is low enough that Canada should consider having a discussion about exempting travellers from low-risk countries from the Quarantine Act, he adds.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can sort of learn off other countries what their best practices are and what works,” he says, pointing to how some countries in Europe, such as the United Kingdom, started introducing travel corridor exemptions that do not require travellers to self-isolate upon arrival.
Chung adds they would also consider requiring passengers to each present a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding an airplane. This requirement could help reduce quarantine restrictions to a more “manageable” level as opposed to the current 14-days.
As the tourism and hospitality sector in Canada employs 1.8 million Canadians and contributes $102 billion to the Canadian economy, Chung says it is important to start lifting measures. By doing so, he says it not only poses very little risk but also helps support our economy.
Airline business models during COVID-19 “fundamentally unsafe,” according to an expert
There have been concerns expressed about decisions made by airlines. As Air Canada and WestJet both opened up their middle seats on their aircrafts as of July 1, some experts are worried crowded cabins can be dangerous amid the pandemic.
“Travel is a really risky thing to do during this pandemic,” says Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “The safest place you can be is in your home. By travelling, you risk a lot of contact with a lot of strangers with no place to hide.”
For someone who has to travel on a plane because of an emergency, Furness says they can take steps to limit the amount of exposure to others. This includes picking the emptiest plane or the first flight of the day where the aircraft has been sitting overnight.
“I have never in my life flown business class, but in this situation I would. You have more space and aren’t crammed in like sardines,” he says. But still, Furness says he strongly opposes air travel during the pandemic.
“I want to be clear how unsafe I think the situation is. It’s not just sharing air in proximity to someone. What perturbs me is that airlines have started selling the middle seat, which means they want full airplanes,” he says.
He explains that Air Canada and WestJet are both pointing to a report by International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of the world’s airlines, to guide their decision. In the report, the IATA says it thinks re-introducing the middle seat is a great idea, though Furness points out there isn’t any data indicating how safe the measure is.
“[The IATA] is just basically saying airplanes are safe because they think they’re safe, and Air Canada and WestJet are using that as their authority as opposed to public health or experts,” he says. “I’m dismayed that Transport Canada has not stepped in.”
If it’s up to him, Furness says he would change the business model that includes imposing a fee on the window seat and aisle seat that pays for the middle seat. In other words, Furness says all airplanes have to do is raise ticket prices instead of cramming lots of people into a small space.
“Their business model is fundamentally unsafe, and I believe because of their actions they are untrustworthy,” he says. He adds that when airlines say they do “deep cleans” of their aircrafts, it doesn’t mean anything.
Terminal cleaning, on the other hand, is an intense disinfecting procedure that involves removing every detachable item in the room for disinfection. In hospitals, this involves bleach, disinfectants and ultraviolet light devices that scrub the air. In airports, measures may not be as stringent.
“The airlines are not acting responsibly, so that makes me really concerned,” he says, adding that there have been many recent domestic and international flights with confirmed COVID-19 cases. “We’re used to trusting airlines, and that’s the thing that really bothers me. Airlines have it wrong right now. If it were up to me, Canadians would not be heading out on tourism flights until we have a vaccine.”
As VIA Rail starts to ramp up service levels in response to the growth in demand, all enhanced health safety measures introduced during the pandemic will be maintained.
“This includes enhanced cleaning, pre-boarding screening of travellers, modified onboard services and reduced capacity in each car,” says Karl-Philip Marchand Giguere, public relations advisor with VIA Rail.
He adds they constantly remind passengers and employees of the importance of following the recommendations of public health authorities, to avoid non-essential travel, practice physical distancing as much as possible and to rigorously follow good hygiene practices.
Checking into your hotel
At the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, coffee makers, magazines and other high-touch objects have been removed from each guestroom and the hotel has halted room service. Despite surviving two World Wars and the H1N1 pandemic without closure, the hotel had to shut down in March for the first time in its 108-year history. It reopened again on Canada Day.
“It’s a different world, for sure, but we try to make it as comfortable and beautiful as possible,” says Deneen Perrin, the hotel’s director of public relations. “You can still roam the halls and look at the beautiful architecture and historical images.”
The hotel hasn’t seen any long-stay guests yet and occupancy levels have been at an all-time low, says Perrin . However, the hotel is still focusing on ensuring tourists will still have a safe experience. For example, each room is left untouched for two days after a guest has checked out.
“From the moment a guest arrives, we welcome them and walk them through the guest journey. People are more understanding than ever before,” she says. “I think Canadians are learning a lot and once we walk them through what they can expect when checking into a hotel, it will get them thinking about where their next escape in Canada will be.”
Thankfully, guests have been very cooperative and very rarely do they have to be told to put on a mask, Perrin adds. She says there is a shift in mindset as soon as they walk into the lobby and everyone seems to be very prepared and willing for this new hotel experience.
Many of the guests checking into the Château Laurier are also coming from nearby cities, she notes. The Toronto to Montreal drive corridor is very popular and there is an increasing number of Ottawans who are simply checking in for a staycation.
“There’s a nice opportunity for people to come explore the nation’s capital. People want to visit and want to see what Ottawa has to offer,” she says. Perrin encourages people to travel during the pandemic, as long as they are doing it safely.
What experts are saying about hotels
If travellers are looking for a place to stay while traveling, epidemiologist Furness recommends checking into a motel that has its own entranceway to the street.
Hotels have more indoor space, which means guests have more interactions with strangers. If people want to check into hotels, he says finding a room on the ground floor is ideal as it minimizes the amount of time spent in elevators and possible exposure to the virus.
Bringing your own disinfecting wipes is also very useful, as Furness explains you shouldn’t assume all employees are adequately wiping down high-touch surfaces. For hotels that still offer housekeeping services, he says people should decline this and instead make their own beds and reuse towels.
Beyond the hotel
As COVID-19 cases in British Columbia surge, professors at Simon Fraser University are urging caution as the economy opens back up.
A new framework published by the researchers is meant to guide which intervention methods, such as physical distancing and masks, are most effective in various settings.
For example, if tourists go to an outdoor patio or movie theatre where COVID-19 transmission is possible, there are various factors that should be considered, such as transmission intensity, duration of exposure, the proximity of individuals and the degree of mixing. The effectiveness of masks decreases the longer the event is, the closer the guests are and the intensity of the transmission.
“We thought this was interesting because it gives a guideline on how effective masks inherently are in certain situations, as some people may be confused,” says Caroline Colijn, co-author of the paper and the Canada 150 research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health.
While people are on vacation, she says they should also be very cautious about social bubbles and the degree of mixing between social groups. Tourists may take bigger risks that they wouldn’t normally do when they are home, such as going to bars or other parties.
“In an intense environment like an indoor cocktail party, you want to be dropping those bridges between groups to keep things very separated so you don’t have people bringing a virus between groups,” she says.
She adds if people do get sick, vacation doesn’t offer the best position to self-isolate and they are likely not known to public health, so contact tracing may be challenging.
“I feel mixed about traveling,” Colijn says. “With the nice weather, we are in ideal conditions to have trips focused on being outdoors rather than indoors, which is a much riskier setting for COVID-19 transmission. So, in a way, the time to travel is now. But at the same time, I would take a cautious approach.”
Avoiding packed hotels, not eating indoors for long periods of time, not arriving at events early and limiting your travel to places where you can self-isolate are all important considerations before deciding to book a trip, she says.
What about tour agencies and expeditions?
As Maple Leaf Adventures’ small expeditions already take people out into nature, there wasn’t much they had to drastically change as they are constantly surrounded by fresh forest and ocean air.
In terms of operating procedures, tourists are required to wear non-medical masks when they board onto small boats to get to shore, says Maureen Gordon, co-owner and manager of Maple Leaf Adventures.
The tour agency is also limiting the number of people who can book trips. Some tours are running at about 50 per cent of their capacity, while others are running at 75 per cent because of their space.
“Everyone has been incredibly thorough here in British Columbia, so there has been a really calm and rational approach to reopening this industry,” she says. Though they have not started operating tours yet, Gordon says there has been a lot of interest and inquiries by families. She says the agency is expecting a limited fall season starting in September or October, with hopes of being fully operational again by next year.
“For us, long-term thinking is what we do. Everything we do is carefully thought out for everyone’s benefit,” she says. “We will create an incredible experience in nature that will be the escape they are looking for during this pandemic.”
In terms of traveling right now, Gordon says if you live in British Columbia and are very careful, it is very easy to drive around the province and take advantage of these kinds of excursions.
“I think people here have learned about patience and things take a little bit longer, but that’s what also keeps us from spreading COVID,” she says. “If people are thoughtful and don’t expect they are going to get on a plane and fly across the world, then getting in your car and driving to an experience close to you is perfectly fine right now.”