Canadians booking off on vacation as COVID measures relax, border crossing gets easier

Lisa Zeltzer watched COVID-19 case numbers rise through the winter and worried the March trip she’d booked to New York City — a vacation her theatre-loving son has been waiting to take for two years — would be cancelled.

As the Omicron wave began subsidizing last month, and as the federal government loosened border measures for air travel in response, Zeltzer started to relax.

At least temporarily.

It’s easier for Canadians to take vacations they’ve put off amid the pandemic now that rapid antigen tests can be used for re-entry instead of molecular versions and quarantine requirements have ended for children traveling with fully vaccinated parents.

But as jurisdictions drop COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine passports, the Zeltzers feel they have to be extra cautious before boarding their spring break flight.

“Ironically, it’s actually making me more anxious,” said Zeltzer, an occupational therapist in Toronto. “With the changes and restrictions (lifting) here… my biggest fear is that we’re going to get COVID before we leave.”

Zeltzer and her fully-vaccinated family, which includes her husband, 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter, take off for their Broadway-filled five-day trip to Manhattan the second week of March. Outside of local road trips, it’ll be their first vacation since before the pandemic.

Even though New York state lifted mask mandates in most indoor settings weeks ago, she said they still plan to wear N95 masks around the big city to mitigate any chance of infection.

Testing positive for COVID-19 before flying home would mean having to extend the trip with a pricey isolation period.

“I’m worried that because everyone’s loosening up, our chances of getting it are higher and we’re going to get stuck in a very expensive city,” Zeltzer said.

While many Canadians remain anxious about travelling, Georgetown, Ont., travel agent Lisa Gerlsbeck said she noticed a large uptick in families booking vacations once the government announced its loosened measures two weeks ago.

The changes — which included removing recommendations that Canadians avoid travel for non-essential purposes and instead urge them to “practise special precautions” — came into effect Monday.

“The phone calls started coming in (immediately after the announcement),” said Gerlsbeck, who specializes in family vacations to Florida.

“People want to travel now. They don’t want to wait until next March break.”

Gerlsbeck said many of her clients are booking vacations for the first time since before the pandemic, including some who’ve postponed the same trips since March 2020. While she said some seem hesitant, many feel ready to get on a plane.

Gerlsbeck said those solidifying getaways have been put at ease by Canada’s relaxed rule for a PCR test for re-entry — noting it posed a significant financial hurdle for those traveling with large families. Rapid tests must be taken no earlier than one day before the scheduled flight and be administered by a professional, the new measures say.

Ending the quarantine rule for unvaccinated children re-entering the country has motivated others to travel.

Dianna McKechnie, a mother of two young kids and a teacher in Burlington, Ont., booked a trip to Arizona to see family over March break “immediately” after hearing of the loosened rules. Quarantining with the two-and four-year-olds after the vacation would be difficult for McKechnie and her husband de ella, who both work outside the home.

Many of McKechnie’s relatives have yet to meet their children, as the family hasn’t crossed the border in two years.

She expressed doubts about the trip, especially considering Arizona’s more relaxed attitude toward COVID-19, but said the family plans mostly to stay put at her uncle’s home and enjoy time together under the blazing desert sun.

“I’ll just conduct myself the way that I’m comfortable (with),” she said. “I think there’s a lot of COVID there, and it’s very polarized in terms of people that are following restrictions or not.”

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease pediatrician and a faculty member at the University of Toronto, said she understands the travel itch some Canadians are feeling.

But she warns that with many places limiting testing, it’s hard to know how much virus is circulating in Canada and elsewhere.

Banerji said a bump in international travel could lead to a bump in cases across Canada, especially as the timing of spring break trips coincides with other loosening measures. But vaccination coverage and immunity from recent Omicron infections should help lessen the severity of a potential approaching wave, she added.

“The government has said: ‘OK, we’re lifting restrictions,’ so you can’t say, ‘Don’t travel.’ … And people probably have made up their minds, anyway, thinking that COVID is not a risk,” Banerji said.

“It is maybe less of a risk to some degree, but it’s still a risk.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2022.

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