Tears, hugs and joy at N.L. airport as controversial pandemic travel ban lifts

Second World War veteran Rod Deon celebrated his centennial birthday at a gala event at the Royal Canadian Legion Pleasantville Branch 56, surrounded by family who had flown into town earlier that day from different parts of the country. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

It took a lot of planning, a bit of luck and the end of a controversial pandemic travel ban to create a special 100th birthday bash at a St. John's legion Friday night.

Second World War veteran Rod Deon celebrated his centennial birthday at a gala event at the Royal Canadian Legion Pleasantville Branch 56, surrounded by family who had flown into town earlier that day from different parts of the country.

Deon's birthday happened to fall the day after Newfoundland and Labrador's so-called travel ban was lifted, and Dave Walsh, his son-in-law, said that serendipity was all the encouragement the family needed to fly in and party with him.

"It's going to be a big reunion, the first time this family's seen each other in a year and a half or two years," Walsh said as he escorted Deon's son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Judy Deon, down the walkway in front of the St. John's International Airport on Friday afternoon.

Twelve other Second World War veterans were expected at the big party, including two others celebrating a 100th birthday this month, Walsh said.

More family members were flying in later that afternoon for the event, he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador began restricting travel on May 4, 2020, allowing only essential travellers into the province and requiring most to self-isolate for 14 days when they arrived. The rules eased slightly last July with the creation of the Atlantic bubble, which permitted free travel between the four Atlantic provinces. The bubble burst about four months later as COVID-19 case counts surged in the region.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association unsuccessfully challenged the ban in court after Kim Taylor, a Nova Scotia resident, was denied entry to the province in May 2020 to attend her mother's funeral.

With caseloads falling and vaccination rates climbing -- 80 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aged 12 and over had at least one shot as of Thursday -- the ban ended July 1. Fully vaccinated travellers from all over Canada can now visit without permission, without isolating and without having to provide a negative COVID-19 test result. Partially vaccinated travellers, meanwhile, must provide proof of a negative result, or self-isolate until they can.

As a result, the sidewalk outside the airport in St. John's was a gauntlet of hugging, crying and squealing people Friday afternoon.

Laura Williams said she screamed out loud and immediately booked a ticket to visit her mother when she heard restrictions were lifting. Her mother lives in Britain and hasn't yet met her granddaughter, Elsie Williams, who is eight months old.

After months of connecting through FaceTime and Skype, that first meeting was suddenly just a 14-hour flight away.

"I'm shaking, I can't wait," Williams said. "My mom washed her hair this morning so that she's ready for pictures. She's picking us up at the airport, she can't wait."

Williams said she has received just one vaccine so far.

"I'm a British citizen, so I'm wondering if maybe I can get it there," she said of her second dose.

She said that with vaccination rates rising, she finally feels safe to travel with her infant, and she no longer has to apply for permission to return home or to quarantine for two weeks when she arrives.

Lisa Bragg, director of business development and marketing with the St. John's International Airport Authority, said though there was increased traffic at the airport Friday, everything went smoothly.

"We had to put more baggage carts in circulation, which is an issue that we welcome," she said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2021.