HALIFAX — Expectations that Atlantic Canadians are only weeks away from being able to travel throughout the region without any restrictions were dampened on Thursday by Nova Scotia's premier.
Stephen McNeil issued a short statement saying that while Nova Scotia is open to the idea of a so-called "Atlantic bubble," he's not yet ready to say when it will happen.
"We cannot put a date on it until we are sure our case numbers are low and the cases in other provinces remain low," McNeil said.
The cautious statement followed comments Wednesday by Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King following a meeting of Atlantic premiers.
King was a little more definitive when asked about the idea by CBC, saying there "seems to be agreement" for some Atlantic bubbling by early July if a downward trend in COVID-19 cases continues in the region.
King, who was unavailable for comment on Thursday, also said the idea could move ahead with just two provinces if others felt they had to hold back initially.
McNeil, meanwhile, emphasized that if Nova Scotia continues to flatten its curve, the province's first priority would be to ease restrictions at home.
"We will decide when to lift those restrictions based on science," he said. "Over the next few weeks, we need to monitor COVID-19 cases to ensure they stay low and we have little to no community spread."
As things stand, the premier said anyone who wants to come to Nova Scotia is welcome, as long as they don't have any symptoms of COVID-19 and can self-isolate for 14 days when they arrive.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said Thursday that talks are proceeding on the bubble plan, although a date hasn't been "nailed down."
"We are working towards having that access sometime this summer, and whether that can be sometime early July or mid-July or whenever is yet to be determined."
Regardless of when the plan takes effect, businesses in the region — especially within the tourism sector — see the concept as a potential lifeline.
Tourism in Nova Scotia, which brought in $2.64 billion in revenues in 2019, is looking at a $1 billion hit this year, according to figures from the province.
"Tourism relies on two things, the movement of people and disposable income, and at the moment both things have been severely affected," said Darlene Grant Fiander, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia.
Grant Fiander called the travel bubble "very important" for the industry, saying it will need to happen once it's deemed safe enough to do so.
She said the relatively low transmission of COVID-19 in the Atlantic region does present an opportunity to help businesses ride out bad economic times.
"I think we are in a unique situation in Atlantic Canada that we should try to leverage," said Grant Fiander. "I think from a business perspective we need to be doing everything we can to take advantage of it."
She pointed out that in a normal year, 70 per cent of tourism visits in Nova Scotia are made by other Atlantic Canadians, including by Nova Scotians who travel within their home province.
"If we can encourage people to travel the province and support these local businesses ... we can help these operators stay in business," she said.
Nova Scotia took its first steps toward reopening its economy a week ago, allowing a range of businesses including bars and restaurants to reopen.
P.E.I., which hasn't had a confirmed case of the virus in 45 days, is ready to implement the fourth stage of its reopening on June 26, the province's chief public health officer said Thursday.
Dr. Heather Morrison said the stage is still being worked on, but could include such things as some indoor visits at long-term homes, a gathering limit of up to 50 people for organized sports, and small festivals and events.
She also said that based on her discussions with the Island's premier, an Atlantic bubble could be in place as early as the first week of July.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2020.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press