Chef Emily Wells was unsure of what to expect as she opened the doors of her seasonal restaurant in rural Prince Edward Island on the same day the four Atlantic provinces of the Canada came together, allowing travel between them while keeping their borders restricted to everyone.
The result was much better than she could have imagined.
“It was a remarkable summer, I was overwhelmed,” Ms. Wells said. “The bubble made all the difference. It certainly worked for us.
Border restrictions along with stringent public health measures have helped East Coast provinces, which have a combined population of 2.4 million, reduce COVID-19 early on and keep it big. The virus started from afar even as the rest of the country entered a second wave of infections.
This success has come at a cost. More than 171,000 jobs were lost, exports plummeted and the region’s $ 5 billion tourism sector was crippled as all four provinces fell from economic growth to sudden contraction.
Although the initial impact was similar to what happened in the rest of Canada, data shows that the rebound in employment and subsequent economic activity was faster, bolstered by the capacity to reopen the economy faster than the rest of the country.
” We knew [the Atlantic bubble] was going to help, we just didn’t know what it would look like, ”said Prince Edward Island Tourism Minister Matthew MacKay. Its small province of 160,000 people ended up receiving about a third of the record 1.6 million visitors it saw in 2019.
Without the bubble, it would have been much more painful, he said.
Between local support and bubble travelers, business at Mike Fritz’s cafe along a popular Prince Edward Island trail was surprisingly strong. But it looks forward to welcoming a wider range of visitors next summer.
“We’re hoping that at least tourists from Ontario and Quebec can come back next season, because that’s almost 60 percent of our business,” said Fritz. But Canada’s two major airlines have cut service to Atlantic Canada, which experts say will slow the recovery in tourism overall and may discourage outward investment.
After months of strict restrictions and mandatory quarantines, the four Atlantic provinces began allowing travel between them in early July, fearing the sudden freedom could lead to a rash of epidemics. This does not happen.
There have been 73 deaths from COVID-19 in the region, most of it before the bubble opened. There are now less than 15 active cases in Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia combined. In New Brunswick, which borders Quebec where the number of cases is high, there are two outbreaks with 75 active cases.
By comparison, Canada as a whole has recorded 9,942 deaths and currently has over 24,400 active cases, with an average of 2,425 new infections every day. The second wave has already led to targeted closures in a number of non-Atlantic provinces.
The resurgence has hurt Canada’s recovery, with an economy expected to shrink 5.9% this year, according to a Reuters poll.
According to analysts’ estimates, three of the four Atlantic provinces should fare better than that, going from 4.3% to 5.4%.
The increase in the number of cases has also made it less clear when Atlantic Canada could reopen its doors to other provinces, with public opinion firmly opposed to the expansion of the bubble.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, tour operator Joseph O’Brien took the unusual step of teaming up with their main competitor so the two could share costs and guests, rather than arguing over the limited number of visitors. .
It estimates that it was only occupying an average of 8% of its usual capacity during the main summer months, mainly due to the lack of visitors from Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Yet Mr. O’Brien supported the strict restrictions to keep people safe.
“I am not a scientist, but I know that hard times demand drastic measures,” he said. “What doesn’t break us usually makes us stronger.”
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