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Health & Science

Canadians In 'Atlantic Bubble' Take Drastic Measures To Keep Infections Low

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Canada, home to the so-called Atlantic bubble - that's a group of four provinces in eastern Canada that have kept coronavirus cases low. The area's population is about the size of Houston. But while the city in Texas has reported more than 3,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, Canada's Atlantic bubble has seen just 76. But as Emma Jacobs reports, while COVID has largely spared this corner of North America, life there has been far from normal.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: When Tomiko Smith's father died in May, he watched the funeral in Nova Scotia from his kitchen table, only about 160 miles away in Shediac, New Brunswick.

TOMIKO SMITH: It was - basically, the funeral home livestreamed. I'm sitting exactly where I am right now for this call alone, feeling, you know, obviously, all of those emotions of lost, helpless, you know, can't, you know, hug my mom.

JACOBS: But had he crossed the provincial border, he'd need to do a two-week quarantine, part of strict public health measures these eastern provinces have imposed to keep new COVID cases exceptionally low.

SMITH: I mean, here, like, we had zero cases today.

JACOBS: Zero new cases - a fact people are proud of but which Smith says has also come at the cost of extreme isolation. For much of the year, he's been told to socialize with at most one other household. Even a tiny number of new cases in these provinces compared to other parts of Canada prompt strict countermeasures.

SMITH: You look at where their case numbers are now and kind of think, OK, well, maybe we are doing the right thing out here. But then on the other side, you're like, hey, we've got five cases. Why are we shutting down hockey?

JACOBS: By taking such a cautious approach, these provinces managed to open up travel between themselves this summer, becoming the Atlantic bubble. People living inside it didn't have to quarantine, but only essential travel has been allowed from outside the bubble. And even though businesses have opened, many are still struggling with the loss of tourists from the U.S. and the rest of Canada, like Brenda O'Reilly's Irish pub in St. John's, Newfoundland.

BRENDA O'REILLY: The Atlantic bubble was good. There was a little bit of a bump. We don't have a big enough population to make our tourism businesses work.

JACOBS: And because some people from outside the bubble still need to come home, there's always the risk the virus can get reintroduced, meaning strict social distancing measures still remain in place. Right now, O'Reilly's is at 50% capacity, tables spaced, masks when standing.

O'REILLY: We've missed that so much this summer, you know, the dancing and enjoying the music the way we would 'cause you're not allowed to dance. They're recommending no dancing.

JACOBS: She chairs the province's hospitality association and says many businesses won't survive without more government help. Two weeks ago, the Atlantic bubble also broke. Several dozen new cases led Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island to pull out of the no-quarantine travel zone. Hannah Tuck, a 21-year-old college student in New Brunswick, originally thought that meant she couldn't go home to Newfoundland for the holidays.

HANNAH TUCK: When the bubble burst, that was possibly the most I've cried in a single day because I was counting on it.

JACOBS: It turned out she could go home but with a quarantine plan. So she's now finishing her semester from her grandfather's old house.

TUCK: It felt really good to know that these four areas at least are not necessarily COVID-free, but we're doing the utmost that we can. And it's paying off.

JACOBS: Those measures still might seem a bit extreme to outsiders. A couple passing through New Brunswick from one part of Quebec to another nearly got stranded beside the highway in the middle of the night after their car hit a moose because neither the police or a taxi would give them a ride into town.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "YOU WISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.