Reports that U.S. residents are vacationing in British Columbia as their country's COVID-19 crisis spirals out of control are concerning, Premier John Horgan said Thursday.
Horgan said he's heard stories from MLAs and community leaders from across B.C. about Americans who appear to be abusing the current border crossing exemption designed to let Alaska residents enter Canada if they're trying to get home.
"Health-care workers have put themselves at risk to protect all of us and we do not want to throw that away for queue jumpers, for people who want to say they're going somewhere and do something else," Horgan said. "If you want to get to Alaska, we do not want to impede, but you should go directly."
Some of the concerns have come from Metro Vancouver, where people have reported seeing Washington state licence plates at popular tourist attractions, including the Grouse Grind.
Horgan said he's heard similar reports from his own riding on the west coast of Vancouver Island as well.
"I was speaking with the local chief of the Pacheedaht (First Nation), and he tells me there was a licence plate from Texas and a licence plate from California at the Port Renfrew general store," Horgan said. "If you're heading to Alaska, you don't go through Port Renfrew."
To some B.C. residents, the concerns are particularly pressing given the failure of U.S. officials in combating the pandemic. On Wednesday, months into the country's response, the U.S. set a new record for confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 50,203 infections in a single day.
Millions of Americans have caught the virus since the start of the pandemic, and more than 128,000 of them have died.
Horgan said he believes Alaska residents should be allowed entry to return to the state, but stressed that they should avoid sight-seeing and detours during the journey.
"If you're going home you should go straight home, you shouldn't be stopping along the way to enjoy the sights and sounds of British Columbia," the premier added.
"Do not pass Go, go directly to Alaska."
Asked about the concerns on Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stressed that the reports should not be blown out of proportion.
She said that after speaking with the Canada Border Services Agency, she feels confident that "the majority of people with U.S. licence plates who are in B.C. are Canadians" who were living in America and returned home to Canada during the pandemic.
"We have seen individual reports of people who are using that 'Alaska loophome,' if you will, but I understand as well that they are very small in number," Henry said.
"Have some compassion, and be calm … recognizing that we might not understand everybody's situation."
But given how easily outbreaks can spread, and the situation right next door in Washington state – which has seen about 11 times more COVID-19 cases than B.C. – the apparent rule-breaking was a big enough issue for Horgan to raise it with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The premier said he's hopeful Freeland will take B.C. residents' concerns up with U.S. State Department officials.
He's also counting on the federal government to keep the border closed for non-essential travel until the risks of reopening are addressed. The current restrictions are set to stay in place until July 21 at the earliest.
"Our borders need to remain closed until the United States demonstrates that they have a handle on this pandemic," Horgan said. "It's so critically important to British Columbia. We have worked very, very hard to get here."