No more masks, vaccine mandates or ArriveCAN for travelers

The trouble-ridden ArriveCAN app has come under criticism.

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The federal government is ending COVID-19 travel rules, including vaccination mandates, mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app, and masks for travelers on planes and trains, to take effect Oct. 1.

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Some of the changes announced Monday are long overdue.

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The trouble-ridden ArriveCAN app has faced criticism, including from tourism officials and businesses in border towns who have complained that it is stopping travelers from coming to Canada.

Critics say it has been ineffective in stopping or significantly slowing the introduction of concerning variants of COVID-19.

The app has been prone to issues, advising thousands of travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days when they weren’t required to, at one point. Border warrants have also been at the center of convoy occupations in Ottawa and protests elsewhere this year.

A report released last week by four physicians specializing in infectious disease, emergencies and pandemic management concluded that Canada’s pandemic travel measures had failed to significantly stop the spread of concerning COVID variants -19 across Canada. The report was released by the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, which called for an easing of border restrictions in the event of a pandemic.

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Still, the decision to lift mask mandates on planes and trains at the start of what is expected to be a severe virus season is being criticized by some health experts and travellers.

Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University and a member of Ontario’s now disbanded COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table, said ending border controls made sense.

“I think the disappearance of border controls is quite reasonable. I don’t think they work in any way to control transmission.

But Evans said that was not the case with mask mandates.

« We know that masking is effective in reducing transmission. »

Evans said he was surprised to see the federal government’s announcement on border measures include the end of mask mandates on planes, trains and buses crossing Canada.

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« Getting rid of masks seems to me to have nothing to do with border controls. »

Evans said COVID-19, especially highly transmissible variants of Omicron, can spread easily in enclosed spaces, such as buses and trains. Planes, he said, have effective air filtration systems, which reduce the risk of transmission when flying, but these are not in place when on the ground.

« The worst part of air travel is the departure lounge and boarding. »

He said he expects many people to continue wearing masks while on the go.

Medical experts whose report was released last week noted that mask mandates are inconsistent and target the travel industry.

“The continued imposition of travel measures at the Canadian border is costly, illogical and inconsistent at this point,” said Dr. Dominik Mertz, associate professor, director of the division of infectious diseases at McMaster University.

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“While Canadians are free to attend concerts, sports, games and many other daily activities, the travel industry continues to be singled out without any scientific basis,” Mertz said.

Travel-related mask mandates are among the last such mandates in place in Canada.

In Ontario, the province still requires masks in long-term care homes and retirement homes, and hospitals have implemented their own mask mandates. Some universities and colleges also require masks. In other public spaces, wearing a mask is no longer mandatory.

The lifting of most mask mandates last spring was followed by an increase in COVID-19 cases fueled by Omicron.

As of last month, people are no longer required to self-isolate for five days after being infected with COVID-19 in Ontario, but are asked to stay home for 24 hours after their symptoms improve and to mask up during 10 days.

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Health officials, including Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, strongly recommend that people continue to mask up indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.

The federal ministers of health, transportation and public safety, who announced the removal of border and travel measures, also recommended that travelers continue to wear high-quality, well-fitting masks while traveling.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said border measures can be lifted, « thanks, in large part, to Canadians who rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated. » He added that COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses should continue to circulate during the cold months « so I encourage everyone to stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccination, including booster doses, and to apply individual public health measures.”

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