OTTAWA — Recognizing that Canadians can’t be prevented from getting outside as the weather improves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that some national parks will be partially reopening at the beginning of June, but said returning to nature will look different than it once did due to COVID-19.
As slowly more and more aspects of life and business begin to reopen and emerge from stay-home orders as the novel coronavirus curve continues to flatten, the federal government is ready to loosen up the prohibitions of visiting what are typically tourist hotspots.
Through this new plan to gradually reopen national parks and heritage sites people will be able to access trails and other green spaces where physical distancing can still be practiced. Depending on the location visitors can use cycling pathways, picnic and beach areas, grounds at historic sites, and boat launches or other water access points.
Going forward it’s possible further public health measures to protect visitors will be implemented as more sites open up.
“There will be adjustments… We know that you can’t prevent Canadians from going outside when the weather is nice, you just have to help them do it safely,” Trudeau said, adding that the government is working to accommodate Canadians’ mental health while protecting their physical health.
“This isn’t forever. Canadians have been doing the right things these past many weeks,” Trudeau said. “And we have to be prepared to keep making adjustments as needed.”
The prime minister said the decision around which parks will be reopening will be made in line with the current severity of COVID-19 cases in the region, while also considering their proximity to Indigenous communities.
“We know that this pandemic has hit very differently across the country and therefore, there will be different phases or different steps in reopening of national parks across the country. We will try and align with the local jurisdiction, what provincial parks nearby are going to be doing so that it is clear for people in terms of what they can do in their own particular region,” he said.
Canada’s more than 200 national parks, historic sites, heritage canals and national marine conservation areas have been closed since mid-March, when vehicle access was suspended and visitor centres shut down in an effort to avoid Canadians flocking to these locations.
In mid-April Parks Canada said there will be no camping or group activities at all national parks across the country until at least June 1. Camping in national parks will continue to be prohibitedat least June 21, and group activities and public events will be prohibited until further notice.
In addition to the parks reopening, conservation activities and day use access for visitors will begin to roll out at selected national wildlife areas.
Parks Canada says it will be informing visitors of the appropriate physical distancing, hygiene and safety measures to follow while enjoying the public space.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said when the grounds reopen, washrooms and comfort stations will also be opened but in a limited capacity to continue to protect Parks Canada staff.
The minister said the intention of reopening some of these locations is not to encourage Canadians to travel beyond their local area to go to a national park, rather about being able to soon revisit nearby sites.
Parks Canada said it will automatically extend the end date of Discovery Passes for the full duration of the time these sites are off-limits. For each month or part of a month that visitor services are not offered, a full month will be added to the end date of the annual pass.
‘THINGS WE TOOK FOR GRANTED’
With no indication of lessening international travel restrictions, the Canada-U.S. border looking likely to remain closed for at least another month, and hesitation in some provinces to welcome visitors from other regions of the country, Trudeau faced questions about what Canadians should consider for summer outings.
In response Trudeau said it’s still hard to predict what the reality of the pandemic will be in the weeks ahead and how that will shape the summer season.
Referencing the coming May long weekend, Trudeau said he knows it will be difficult to not celebrate or spend the same kind of outdoor time as usual.
“We know Canadians are making extraordinary sacrifices through this difficult time ,” Trudeau said, speaking more broadly.
He went on to note that the reopening of national parks under new parameters is just one example of the ways COVID-19 has, and will continue, to change society.
“I think we know that there are things that we took for granted last year, and years before that have changed. We have seen this world change rapidly over the years… We have seen measures brought in that have made shifts in our society, some for the better, some for the worse,” Trudeau said, adding that COVID-19 is going to be society-changing and the responsibility of the government is to navigate how to minimize the negative impacts of those changes.
“Getting that balance right is something we’re doing in the short term, but obviously there’ll be plenty of reflections over the coming months and indeed years about how we make sure that Canadians and people around the world are kept safe from this pandemic or from potential next pandemics,” he said.
NEW BOATING RULES, FISHERIES FUNDING
The prime minister announced that in addition to the parks changes, new regulations on boating are going to be imposed as of June 1 in the North. Specifically, no pleasure craft will be permitted to operate in Canada’s Arctic coastal waters, or in the coastal areas of northern Quebec and Labrador, with boats used for essential fishing and hunting exempted.
Trudeau also used his daily address to announce new COVID-19 supports for the fisheries industry which is facing decreased demand and increased economic pressure, as “you can’t harvest lobster from inside your house,” as Trudeau put it.
The further support includes $470 million to support fish harvesters including a new benefit to cover 75 per cent of losses up to $10,000 if their income drop this season is at least 25 per cent. As well, they are being offered non-repayable grants of up to $10,000 for fish harvesting business owners and changes to next year’s Employment Insurance rules.
Trudeau encouraged Canadians to help support their local food sectors, suggesting buying lobster or having a fish fry.
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