Michael Nicola spent hours preparing for the day he could return home to Canada without needing to go through a 14-day quarantine. As a Canadian citizen who is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, that day came last week when the federal government eased pandemic-related restrictions for vaccinated citizens and permanent residents.
But what was meant to be a celebratory reunification with his family in Newmarket, Ontario, has turned into a stressful several days.
The ArriveCan app, created by the Canadian government for people hoping to enter the country during the pandemic, has confused some users due to glitches.
Travellers who want to be exempt from quarantine must register with the app, where they are asked to submit their vaccination documents.
While proof of a mandatory PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival is also required, those results are shown to the border agent on arrival, who then determines the traveller's exemption status.
Mr Nicola said the process of using the app to register his arrival was unclear, and while he got a verbal exemption from the border agent when he arrived in the country, he received no documented evidence of his exemption status.
“It's not just fully vaccinated Canadians this app is taking into account, you know — all kinds of international travellers have to use this, Mr Nicola said.
“It's a big swath of people to kind of try to accommodate in one app. But, you know, it's still confusing as heck, at the end of the day.”
Once in Canada, Mr Nicola began receiving notifications via the ArriveCan app to check in for his mandatory 14-day quarantine, despite the border agent telling him he was not required to quarantine.
Mr Nicola is not alone. My own family, who was also told it was exempt from quarantine, has received daily ArriveCan messages as well as dozens of calls from the Canadian government reminding us to abide by the 14-day quarantine since we entered Canada on July 6.
The border agent who processed our return gave us no instruction on how to handle these calls, making us concerned over whether we had misunderstood the rules.
Another returning Canadian, who asked not to be identified because he works in the airline industry, called his experience with the app “terrifying”.
“You just don't take the government messaging you on an app lightly,” the Toronto, Ontario, resident said.
He called the government and waited three hours on the phone to be told to “ignore” the app notifications. But he’s worried he may somehow be blacklisted.
“No one will ever tell you if there's a scar in your passport. You know, for me, I travel frequently. So, I don't want to be harassed every time I go through for this issue,” he said.
Canadians who do not comply with the mandatory self-isolation measures under its Quarantine Act face a maximum penalty fine of C$750,000 Canadian dollars ($594,700) and/or imprisonment for six months.
The mixed messaging also has him concerned about the government's overall ability to handle the virus. “If they're transferring the sort of administrational duties, if you will, on to an app and they can't control the app, that's a huge problem.”
Health Canada, the government agency responsible for the country's Covid-19 policies, said it is aware of the issues and expects the problems to be resolved with an updated version of the app.
“We are aware of a technical issue that some travellers who meet the criteria for fully vaccinated travellers may continue to receive notifications from ArriveCAN. If you get the exemption and receive notifications from ArriveCan after you arrive in Canada, you aren’t required to respond,” a representative told The National.
There have been 63,835 fully vaccinated exempt entries into Canada since July 5, according to Health Canada, with three reported Covid cases among those who entered under the new rules.
Delays in Covid test processing
Another area of concern is the delays in receiving results from the mandatory test taken on arrival into the country, called the Day-1 Covid Test.
All incomers are given a Covid testing kit to take home and required to register with Switch Health, which has been contracted by the government to handle testing for those entering the country.
After performing the test via a tele-health appointment with a Switch Health staff member, the tests are picked up by a mail carrier the next day and sent to the Switch Health facility.
But many Canadians, including my family, waited nearly a week to receive their results.
“I knew we didn't have to be in quarantine. But you still wanted to make sure that you had … that second negative test. So, you're going outside feeling worried, you know?” said the airline worker.
Switch Health also sent out automated emails telling vaccinated travellers that a Day-8 Covid Test was on its way, despite the new arrival rules not requiring a second test.
The company messaged some users on Twitter, trying to ease confusion.
US-Canada border still closed
While the first phase of the government's easing of border measures allows some exemptions for fully vaccinated travellers, the border between the US and Canada remains mostly closed.
However, Health Canada said it is considering additional reopening phases as soon as scientific evidence supports them.
“Vaccination rates and continued strong public health measures matter. Together, they are lowering case counts and reducing hospitalisations. These successes are setting the stage for a cautious and calibrated adjustment to border measures for travellers entering Canada,” an agency representative said.