How some Canadians plan to circumvent Ottawa’s new hotel quarantine requirement

Some Canadians abroad plan to change their route home and cross the border by land, instead of air, to bypass Canada’s pricey new hotel quarantine requirement. 

“If I can avoid it, I’m going to do it,” said Brian Cross of Burlington, Ont., who is spending the winter with his wife, Anne, in Mesa, Ariz. 

The couple originally planned to fly back to Canada in April. But that was before the federal government announced last week that, effective Monday, most air passengers entering Canada must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and spend up to three days of their 14-day quarantine at a designated hotel to await their test results. (They can leave earlier if their results come back early.)

Travellers must foot the bill for their stay, which could cost upwards of $2,000, according to the government.

But the hotel quarantine rule doesn’t apply to travellers entering Canada by land, inspiring some like Cross to revise their plans. 

“Common sense says, well, let’s do the path of least resistance, right? If I can save 4,000 bucks, why wouldn’t I do it?” he said, estimating the total hotel bill for two people. 

Brian Cross in Mesa, Ariz., where he is spending the winter. Cross said when he returns to Canada, he plans to fly to Buffalo and then cross the border by foot to avoid the cost of quarantining in a hotel. (Submitted by Brian Cross)

If the hotel quarantine rule is still in effect when Cross, 63, and Anne, 61, return home in April, he said they plan to fly to Buffalo instead of Toronto. Then they’ll take a cab to the Rainbow Bridge land border crossing at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and walk across the border to Niagara Falls, Ont. 

Cross said a couple of friends have agreed to drive his car to the Canadian side of the border and leave it there for him.

“We’ll just pick it up and drive home,” he said. 

Cross and his wife will still have to adhere to other new measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19. As of this week, land travellers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test at the border and, starting Monday, must take another test on arrival and a third near the end of their 14-day quarantine.

But there will be no hotel stay, which Cross argues is unfair to people flying home.

“It’s kind of discriminatory that you fly and you’ve got to stay in a hotel, but you drive in, you don’t.”

WATCH | Hotel quarantinies coming for air travellers:

The federal government has announced dates for new travel measures meant to keep COVID-19 cases in check, including requiring proof of a negative test at land borders beginning Feb. 15 and introducing mandatory hotel quarantines for international air travellers as of Feb. 22. 2:17

Why the rules are different

The government said its new rules vary due to different circumstances at the land border. 

Most leisure travellers enter Canada by air and, by funnelling all flights into four major airports, the government can ensure that arriving passengers check into nearby quarantine hotels.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says imposing the same requirement for the small number of leisure travellers entering by land poses a difficult challenge.

“At land borders we have 117 different points of entry and many of those points of entry are located in remote rural areas,” not near hotels or other amenities, said Blair during a news conference last week. 

In an email statement sent by his office, Blair also said that the government has implemented effective measures for both land and air travellers. 

“If people are not prepared to go through that rigour of keeping themselves and their communities safe, then I’d urge them to stay where they are, just to avoid all non-essential travel,” he said. 

Ben Mallory of Burlington, Ont., is currently in Virginia, visiting his girlfriend, Abigail Bettenhausen. Mallory said he’ll cross on land returning to Canada because he can’t afford the cost of quarantining in a hotel. (Submitted by Ben Mallory)

Cross says he’s happy to comply with all the test requirements at the land border and argues travelling by land carries less risk because he doesn’t have to check into a hotel with multiple employees and other guests.

“My plan is, I don’t see anybody except the cab driver from Buffalo,” he said. 

And he’s not the only Canadian air passenger planning to make a pit-stop at the land border on the way home.

Last month, Ben Mallory, who also lives in Burlington, flew to Lynchburg, Va., to visit his girlfriend. When he flies home in April, he too plans to land in Buffalo and then cross the border in Niagara Falls by foot. 

Mallory said he understands why the government introduced the hotel quarantine requirement, but he’s still determined to avoid it because he can’t afford the price tag. 

The 23-year-old e-commerce administrator graduated from university in April and didn’t land a job until September.

“A $2,000 sudden expense would be quite devastating,” he said. “That would put me in a negative balance with my bank account.”

Mallory says the government should cover the cost of the hotel bill, or at least provide financial assistance for travellers who need it.

“Having to quarantine in a facility with these prices, it just seems a bit ridiculous.”

On Sunday during an interview on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live, Blair responded to a question about people who can’t afford the hotel bill.

“I think there will be ways in which we will find to manage those individuals, but, quite frankly, what we are urging Canadians to do right now is not travel,” he said.

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