Churchill train travel on track

Manitoba’s chief public health officer has clarified exemptions to the order that prohibits travel north of the 53rd parallel, especially where it pertains to the town of Churchill.

Dr. Brent Roussin said an exemption to the travel restrictions applies to: people living in the region, or permanently moving to the region; employees of the federal or provincial governments or Crown corporations; health-care workers and Child and Family Services employees; teachers, professors or students travelling for the purposes of education; people who own, operate or work for a business who are travelling to deliver goods or operate the business.

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Travel is also allowed for judicial proceedings and parenting arrangements. People can travel to cottages or provincial parks, as well as hunting and fishing lodges, but must limit their use of local services.

“People can also travel to Churchill if they have no symptoms of COVID-19 and limit the use of local services while they are travelling there. They must travel there as directly as possible. This means they can fly directly to Churchill, or drive or fly to another northern city and then be transported to Churchill,” Roussin said Thursday.

The clarification allows for travellers and tourists to take the train to Churchill (1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg), which was left in question earlier this week, when Roussin had said only direct means of transport would be included in the Churchill travel exemption.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said in a statement, even with the clarifications made Thursday, he and other Northern Manitoba leaders still have many unanswered questions.

“The top priority remains the safety of our community. Northern communities are particularly vulnerable, and it is important that governments and health officials recognize this. Information is key right now, so that informed decisions can be made, and risks mitigated,” Spence said.

Meanwhile, tourism companies in Churchill are gearing up for the six-week period known as “bear season,” in which polar bears move from the tundra landscape out onto Hudson Bay as it freezes. The period in October and November is typically peak tourist season for the industry, that was valued at $41.7 million by Travel Manitoba.

The clarification from public health officials was welcomed by John Gunter, owner of Frontiers North, one of the largest tourism companies that operates in Churchill. Many of the company’s prospective guests this fall will rely on train travel.

Gunter said even with the exemption applying to train-in tourists, he suspects the economic prospects this year will be bleak, due to the absence of international travellers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I felt this way at the beginning of summer, I feel this way now: that summer was our opportunity this year,” Gunter said, explaining with the focus on Manitoban and Canadian tourists, it was the period (wrapping up last month) in which he believed people would book trips to the north. He’s not as confident, even with the travel exemption, that people will go to Churchill in the same numbers this fall.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, I stand to be proven wrong,” Gunter said. “But nobody’s going to be making money this year. We’re all going to be trying to lose the least amount of money as possible.”

Gunter said the responsibility of being one of the companies that could benefit from such an exemption weighs heavy, but so too does responsibility to his employees who count on their jobs each fall.

“The last thing that any of us want is to introduce people into the community of Churchill with COVID,” he said.

While the original public health announcement stated the restrictions would take effect Sept. 3, Roussin said it had been delayed until Sept. 4.

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