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Emergency orders under the Quarantine Act: What everyone should know


By Erin Moores

On March 24, 2020, the federal government made its first COVID-19 mandatory self-isolation order using emergency powers available to it under the Quarantine Act. These orders were last updated on April 14, 2020.

On March 26, 2020, the government used these same powers to issue two broad-reaching “travel bans” that apply to foreign nationals who want to enter Canada. These orders were most recently updated on June 8, 2020.

What is the Quarantine Act? 

The Quarantine Act is a federal law that is always there, not just in times of pandemic or outbreak. It sets out rules related to preventing the spread of communicable diseases and enables the federal government to make emergency orders to that end. Violation of these emergency orders is punishable.

What are the “travel bans”?

These are two emergency orders initially made under the Quarantine Act on March 26, 2020 and last updated on June 8, 2020. One order applies to foreign nationals arriving from the United States and the other applies to foreign nationals arriving from countries other than the United States. “Foreign nationals” do not include Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Both orders generally prohibit entry to foreign nationals entering Canada, either from the United States or from other countries, if they:

  • Have symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and cough or fever and difficulty breathing, or
  • Are travelling for discretionary or optional purposes, such as tourism or recreation.

Foreign nationals arriving from the United States may be allowed to enter if they do not fall into one of the above two groups. For those entering from other countries, the rules are stricter. Even if they have no symptoms, and even if they are not traveling for an “optional” purpose, they may not be allowed to enter unless they fall into one of the groups that is specifically exempted from the travel ban applying to foreign nationals entering from countries other than the United States. This list of exempted groups is long, however, and includes immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, people with valid work or study permits, health care workers, diplomats, and many others.

On June 8, 2020, updates to both orders slightly relaxed the rules for foreign nationals who want to come to Canada for discretionary or optional visits to immediate family members who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents. These visitors may now come to Canada for this purpose, but must show they have the intent to stay in Canada for at least 15 days and must also comply with the mandatory isolation orders (see the next section).

The order applying to foreign nationals arriving from countries other than the United States expires June 30, 2020. The updated order applying to those entering from the United States expires June 21, 2020.

What is the mandatory isolation order?

The main point of this order has remained the same since March 24, 2020: once you enter Canada you must quarantine or isolate yourself for 14 days even if you have no symptoms of COVID-19. “Quarantine” is the term the order uses for people who are asymptomatic, and “isolation” is used for people who have COVID-19 symptoms. However, the order does not set out any practical difference between the two. These orders apply to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreign nationals.

What are the quarantine requirements for travellers with no symptoms?

Asymptomatic people entering Canada must quarantine themselves for 14 days. An updated order issued April 14, 2020 added that a new 14-day period starts if symptoms of COVID-19 appear.

This requirement does not apply to a list of categories that includes, among others, airline crew, members of the Canadian Forces, people whose “everyday functions” require them to go to the United States, students in a health field, and health care workers if they do not care for people aged 65 and over during their first 14 days in Canada.

The full list of exemptions is available in the text of the April 14th order here.

What are the isolation requirements for travellers with COVID-19 symptoms?

People entering Canada with symptoms of COVID-19 must isolate themselves for 14 days.

The April 14, 2020 order defines symptoms of COVID-19 as a “fever and cough” or a “fever and difficulty breathing.” During isolation, people with symptoms must report any medical care they require. They could also be required to undergo health assessments during isolation.

What happens if you’re unable to isolate or quarantine yourself?

Those who are unable to isolate or quarantine themselves are required to stay in quarantine for 14 days at a facility, such as a hotel, chosen by the Chief Public Health Officer.

A person might be considered unable to quarantine or isolate themselves if, for instance, they can’t do so without being in contact with a vulnerable person. Vulnerable people include those who are 65 and over, people with underlying medical conditions that make them susceptible to complications from COVID-19, and immunocompromised people. However, the April 14, 2020 order added that you may isolate or quarantine yourself with vulnerable people if they are consenting adults or your children, for example.

The April 14, 2020 added a category of people are considered unable to isolate themselves: those with symptoms of COVID-19 who would have to take public transportation to get from their point of entry to Canada to their home or wherever they intended to isolate. “Public transportation” also includes taxis and rideshares, so this addition may significantly broaden the group of people who must quarantine at a facility of the government’s choice.

While entering Canada or while in transit to their destination, travellers are required to wear a non-medical mask.

This order is in force until June 30, 2020. 

Can I be punished under the Quarantine Act if I don’t follow these rules? If so, how? 

Yes. A violation of an order made under the Quarantine Act is punishable by fines of up to $750,000, up to six months in prison, or both.

It is still not entirely clear how the mandatory isolation emergency orders are being enforced in practice. In press conferences, the government has referred to calling isolated or quarantined individuals and to conducting “spot checks” and has alluded to potential involvement by the police.

What else do I need to know about the Quarantine Act and these orders? 

If you’re a Canadian citizen, you have a constitutional right to enter and remain in Canada at any time. Under Canada’s immigration law, permanent residents also must be allowed to enter Canada as long as they satisfy the screening officer of their permanent resident status. None of these emergency orders have taken away those rights. 

Further plain language details about isolation and quarantine requirements and COVID-19 travel restrictions can be found on the Government of Canada’s website.