A Romanian man currently living in Vancouver says he flew into Yellowknife and spent two days in the city in April despite a territorial government ban on all non-residents and non-essential workers from entering the NWT to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The man, who asked not to be named because he fears he will be harassed, said he took a WestJet flight from Vancouver to Calgary to Yellowknife on April 8 – weeks after chief public health officer Kami Kandola banned non-essential travellers from entering. She announced the ban on March 18.
The visitor – a student from Romania who says he’s studying English – said he came to Yellowknife after being invited by a friend named “Derek” who wanted to learn more about building winter greenhouses and potentially create a business together.
The man said his family back home runs a winter greenhouse and he intended to meet and stay with Derek in self-isolation. The visitor said he wasn’t aware of the travel ban into the NWT.
“I got in by mistake after my friend (Derek) invited me to visit him but then (upon arrival) he didn’t answer the phone,” he said, noting that he knew the person from a previous trip to Japan.
“By WestJet I flew to visit my friend and he was talking about a project (for greenhouses) to sell in Yellowknife. His parents were worried about the coronavirus and to not get infected or anything.”
The visitor explained that because he wasn’t able to connect with Derek, he was directed by airport security to the Days Inn and Suites where he said he quarantined himself. Before making those arrangements, however, the man tried to book a room at Mo’s Houseboat Bed and Breakfast, owned by Monique Robert.
Robert, who had alerted NNSL Media to the incident, said she was shocked to hear from a traveller asking for overnight accommodations while the territory was under lockdown.
“I told him the bed and breakfast was obviously closed and that he needs to get out of the NWT ASAP as there is a ban on non-essential travel to the territories,” said Robert, who thought the man was a tourist seeking out the northern lights.
“How in the world was he able to get onto a plane to get to Yellowknife?”
Robert had been out of the territory at the time and received the request by text and then talked to him on the phone. She had to explain to him that her bed and breakfast has not been offering rooms since mid-February.
She then sent him several texts scolding him for coming North while the entire country was gripped by the pandemic.
“You should really go HOME,” reads one text.
“It is unbelievably selfish of you to come to Yellowknife during this pandemic, bringing from BC possible COVID to our town. I have reported you to the local health authority as you being here is NOT ‘essential travel’ because you are only to see the aurora.”
When asked about the claim in her text that she had contacted the health authority to report the man, Robert said she told a friend who works as a senior official for the health department.
NNSL Media was unable to find ‘Derek’ or determine who he is, as neither the visitor nor Robert know his last name.
The visitor said he was able to purchase a plane ticket out of Yellowknife last minute and left on April 10.
“It was a tough situation and getting the flight back – it was a lot of travel,” the man said.
“I don’t really want to find myself in that kind of situation again.”
The visitor said he completed self-isolation in British Columbia last Friday and was found to have no symptoms of the coronavirus.
GNWT confirms at least one incident in April
For its part, officials with the GNWT initially said they were unaware of any unauthorized visitors to Yellowknife since the ban was put in place.
“We have investigated and have no record of this incident,” stated Mike Westwick, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, in an email on April 20.
Dr. Kandola said during Wednesday’s weekly Covid-19 news conference that she was also not aware of any cases of non-authorized people getting into the territory last month.
“Right now I am not aware of any specific instances of people being able to get through, whether it is through the border or airports,” Kandola said. “On Monday (April 27), we had more vigorous measures instituted around a counter (at the airport) for anyone travelling through the borders, so we have a better sense on tracking who could come in through, whether it’s through land or air.
“With a new order we are able to track much better traffic flows coming through the highways or for the airports.”
But after NNSL Media inquired again later that day, Westwick acknowledged there was indeed a report of an unauthorized visitor who had arrived in Yellowknife around the dates the Romanian man was in the city.
He would not confirm whether or not the incident was related to the Romanian visitor because no charges have been laid.
“I’m not getting into specific cases where there have been no charges laid and no one has outed themselves willingly — much like any other investigation we’d undertake,” Westwick stated in an email.
“I’m not even sure this is the same person — and as you’ve alluded to, there are clearly some differences from what I’ve got on record to what your subject has described, so I’m not even too sure we’re talking about the same incident.”
Westwick stated that the case he has on file involved an individual misleading “border agents at the Yellowknife airport as well as the airline they flew on to gain entry into the NWT.
“They were found out, the soonest flight back to their original destination was a day later, and they were isolated,” he stated. “They then left the territory under strict orders.”
Westwick stated that the GNWT has limited control over people boarding flights from out of territory but if an authorized traveller does arrive they are put into a hotel to quarantine and sent back on the next available flight. The Days Inn is one location in the Yellowknife used to quarantine travellers.
People arriving at the airport are met by GNWT staff who are then asked for their information and residency status, said Westwick.
“That information is taken down and sent to our Protect NWT group for follow up to make sure folks are submitting self-isolation plans,” stated Westwick.
“They must also fill out a self-isolation plan within 24 hours of arriving.”
The Romanian visitor was asked whether he ‘misled’ authorities when he arrived and he said no. Had he known that he wasn’t able to come into a territory with a closed border, he said he would have spared himself the cost of the flight and the two weeks in quarantine in B.C.
He said, in fact, he found no information warning him that he could not enter the territory prior to the flight.
“Misled? When I booked the flight there (were) no questions about why I am going to Yellowknife, not on the website and not in the airport,” he wrote in a text message. “If there were, I wouldn’t have been able to go visit my friend.
“They should make a questionnaire and show the rules of flight in closed borders time, also the airport personnel when checking in and boarding (because you don’t have to pass any check-in on connection flights).
“They should make it clear to all passengers the criteria for who can and who can’t be on that plane, in Vancouver and Calgary.
“I wasn’t even asked about quarantine plans. So … closed borders but,….not really closed?!”
Morgan Bell, a media advisor with West Jet, stated in an email last week week that the company was still flying daily from Calgary to Yellowknife on April 8.
Since then, flight schedules have been further restricted as West Jet is flying three times weekly – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – on WestJet Encore. This is expected to continue until May 5, at which time the company will reduce flights to two times weekly.
Bell stated that since March 30, all guests have been required to respond to a health questionnaire at the time of boarding.
“The safety of our guests and crew remains our top priority,” stated Bell in a recent email. WestJet is in close contact with Transport Canada and has been adhering to all requirements for guests travelling on all domestic flights.”
Bell also stated that all guests have been required to wear non-medical face masks or face coverings through all aspects of their trips, including during the flight and while travelling in the airport. The only time they are allowed to remove the coverings is when providing identification to verify who they are.
*An earlier version of this story indicated that the visitor was required to self-isolate upon re-entry into British Columbia. In fact the visitor self-isolated on his own accord. Only international travellers are required to self-isolate for 14 days upon re-entry.