Are Americans using ‘Alaska exemption’ to skirt border shutdown? Feds looking into reports

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government is looking into reports of American tourists getting around the coronavirus border shutdown by saying they are going to Alaska — then sticking around.

The United States now has more than two million cases of the coronavirus and is seeing record spikes in new cases across multiple states amid a patchwork approach to tackling the spread of the virus.

READ MORE: American tourists in Alberta? RCMP investigating possible breaches of COVID-19 restrictions

“We’ve heard those reports over the past few days and are looking into them,” Trudeau said during a daily briefing with journalists when asked about the reports.

“We need to make sure we’re able to apply the rules consistently and that we’re doing everything necessary to keep Canadians safe at this important time.”

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A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency told Global News last week that while the border remains shut, there are exceptions and one of those is Americans heading to Alaska — so long as they do not have any symptoms.

But business owners and locals in tourist areas like Banff have described American travellers from California, Texas and Utah dining in restaurants and telling staff they entered the country by claiming they were heading to Alaska, but were actually on a vacation.

RCMP, which is the police force responsible for the Banff area, confirmed it is aware of those reports but isn’t sure how widespread they are.

“We are aware that there was a group of four people who claimed to be from Texas on their way to Alaska who were having supper in a local restaurant, who claimed to the server that they were not in fact on their way to Alaska, but were, in fact, having a holiday,” Banff RCMP Staff Sgt. Michael Buxton-Carr said when asked about the matter on Friday.

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“Unfortunately, the identities of the people weren’t learned.”

Buxton-Carr said on Monday he hasn’t received any similar reports since but that he understands there are conversations taking place among the hospitality industry in Banff and Alberta Health Services about how to handle any other incidents.

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“We’re not yet sure whether we really have a large issue or whether we have a couple of isolated events that have been widely circulated,” he said.

Buxton-Carr added Banff RCMP did speak to “a few people” with American plates over the weekend and found the people were travelling through Banff to another destination.

He said the force has been following the advice of public health officials and explaining to those individuals what their quarantine requirements entail.

That includes staying in the vehicle as much as possible, avoiding staying in hotels, paying for gas at the pump and only using drive-through food options rather than entering facilities.

“We’ve found that people have been quite receptive.”

He said police do have the authority to intervene in serious cases.

“If there’s a particularly egregious case, there is the ability to charge or escort somebody to a quarantine facility that Public Health Canada would support.”

American tourists in Alberta? RCMP investigating possible breaches of COVID-19 restrictions
American tourists in Alberta? RCMP investigating possible breaches of COVID-19 restrictions

The federal government shut down the border with the U.S. in March as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world and both countries struggled to get the contagion under control.

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The rules allow for essential business to continue, such as the crossing of transport trucks carrying food and essential goods, but bars non-essential crossings.

That’s led to family separations and strain as individuals on both sides of the closely-integrated border adapt to a life with it dividing between them, though some have found ways to circumvent that rule by flying rather than travelling across the land border.

READ MORE: Questions raised by Canada U.S. land-border closures as citizens fly into the U.S.

Individuals entering Canada from abroad have to go into quarantine for 14 days.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office has faced questions though from opposition critics over whether CBSA officials are doing enough to ensure individuals coming into Canada from abroad actually honour the requirement to go into quarantine.

As Global News reported, a lack of resources to enforce quarantines was part of the reason the government initially refused to order a mandatory quarantine for travellers coming to Canada from China at the beginning of the year, even as the virus spread.

READ MORE: Officials warned Canada couldn’t enforce coronavirus quarantine for travellers from China: memo

His office did not specifically answer whether any additional screening or travel restriction efforts will be put in place for Americans claiming to be transiting en route to Alaska, but provided a statement.

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Mary-Liz Power, press secretary to the minister, said the government has already put “significant restrictions” in place at the border and that travel is down as a result.

“During the week of June 1 to June 7, 2020, volumes were down 87 per cent for those crossing via land, and 97 per cent at airports compared to the same time a year ago,” she said in an email. “On June 7, 2020, alone, travellers on U.S. flights were down 98 per cent and international air travellers were down 95 per cent compared to the previous year.”

“Non-essential travel is still prohibited at this time. We would like to thank Canadians for their patience during this unprecedented pandemic. Our government will continue doing what is necessary to keep Canadians safe and will base our decisions on the best public health evidence available.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.