For some Northwest Territories communities, the closing of winter roads as spring thaws the ice has provided a form of natural Covid-19 barricade.
Fort Simpson, in the Dehcho, is one of those communities. The village’s mayor, Sean Whelly, said on Sunday in a Facebook post: “Sounds like the ice bridge is closed. We are all a bit safer now. It is our roadblock.”
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Whelly said the village’s annual, naturally occurring isolation – it takes weeks for the ice to clear so a summer ferry can shuttle vehicles between the highway and village – provides extra comfort right now.
“I think people here do feel better,” he said. “I think people are happy that the [ice] bridge is closed perhaps a little earlier than normal.”
Fort Simpson sits at the confluence of the vast Mackenzie River, before it bends north toward the Arctic coast, and the Liard River flowing from the south.
A spokesperson for the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources said studies of climate change impacts on the Mackenzie River show the annual breakup is getting earlier.
That may mean ferries heading into service sooner, too. Whelly said the village usually has a working ferry by mid-May.
“We almost always have the ferry operation going before the main long weekend,” he said. This year, Victoria Day falls on May 18.
Ferry operators ‘can’t be policemen’
This year, NWT ferries like the one across the Liard River into Fort Simpson will be subject to pandemic-related restrictions.
Those include cutting by half the maximum number of passengers allowed on board in an effort to comply with physical distancing rules.
Individuals who don’t comply can be fined up to $5,000 a day. For vessels and corporations, it’s a maximum of $25,000 a day. (Jail time is even theoretically possible.)
The new rules come from the federal agency Transport Canada. Ferry operators are also told to keep people in their vehicles as a means of reducing the spread of the Covid-19.
Katrina Nokleby, the NWT’s infrastructure minister, said education and training will be key.
“We will be doing training there so [operators] are aware of requirements around physical distancing,” the minister said, “rather than us sitting there with a militarized kind of enforcement style.
“I can’t be asking operators to become policemen, right?”
The measures will be in place until at least June 30. They apply to all of Canada’s coastal and inland waters.
Whelly said people in Fort Simpson have been following the chief public health officer’s recommendations and he doesn’t think the ice bridge being out will change how people behave.
“It just seems like it’s a routine now for people here,” he said.
“I don’t think just because the the bridge went out that they’re gonna feel too relaxed about that.
“There’s still a lot of concern here, and they do realize that there are still going to be people coming and going from the community.”
New protocols for air passengers
Ferries aren’t the only means of travel seeing new restrictions.
In an online message to residents of Fort Simpson, Paul Grech – base manager for Great Slave Helicopters – reminded people that all air travel in Canada now requires the use of masks by passengers, at the order of the federal government.
Northern airlines Canadian North and Aklavk Air issued similar warnings, as did Air Tindi, which told passengers to make sure they brought their own masks as the airline could not issue spares. The rule came into effect on Monday.
Meanwhile, Grech said, essential workers and passengers coming back to Fort Simpson from a 14-day quarantine in Hay River – as is mandatory when returning from outside the NWT – must have paperwork and documentation ready to show the crew.
“All passengers will be expected to complete a waiver that will allow our crew to assess the possible risk of spreading Covid-19,” Grech stated. “If our crew deem the risk too high, we will have to implement our right to refuse travel to that particular passenger.”
The Liard River ferry connecting Fort Simpson to the NWT’s highway network is usually the first of the territory’s four crossings to begin for the summer, with an average opening date of May 13.
That’s followed by the N’Dulee ferry between Highway 1 and Wrigley around May 21, and the Arctic Red River ferry between Highway 8 and Tsiigehtchic around May 31.