OTTAWA (REUTERS) - Canada closed its borders to all foreign nationals except US citizens and permanent residents on Monday (March 16), with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging people to limit social contact to help stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
Several other countries have already taken the same step.
The 27-nation European Union proposed shutting its external borders to foreigners for 30 days on Monday.
"We will be denying entry into Canada to people who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents... it is a significant step that we take in exceptional circumstances," Trudeau told reporters outside his home, where he is under quarantine after his wife, Sophie, tested positive for the respiratory virus.
As the spread of the virus accelerates in Canada, Trudeau also urged people to stay in their homes and restrict contact with others as much as possible.
"Staying home is an important step to protect the community and each other. We all have to do it," he said.
Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said the country was "in a fairly critical period," and that the next two weeks were crucial in trying to stem the outbreak.
The death toll in Canada rose to four on Monday from one on Sunday. The number of infected jumped to 407 from the 341 reported at 9am (1300 GMT) earlier in the day, medical officials said.
The new deaths occurred in the Pacific province of British Columbia, which is directly north of Washington, one of the worst-hit US states.
Trade will not be affected by the border closing. Canada shares a long unguarded frontier with the United States, which takes 75% percent of Canadian goods exports.
Asked why US citizens were exempt, Trudeau said the close bilateral integration meant the United States was in a different category from other nations. But he added that more measures could be announced soon.
"Both countries rely on each other to provide essential goods... so it's very important we do this with a degree of precision and in the spirit of a strong relationship," Health Minister Patty Hajdu later told reporters.
British Columbia said, however, it was concerned that US citizens would be allowed in.
"Our strong message (is) that visitors from the United States not come to British Columbia," said provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix.
The border closure helped drive down Air Canada's stock by as much as 38%.
Canada will reroute all international flight arrivals to four airports - Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver - and has imposed tougher screening requirements.
Ontario, the most-populous province, and one which accounts for nearly half of the confirmed cases, said it would delay a March 25 budget and instead deliver an economic and fiscal update.
Trudeau, who has promised to unveil a major stimulus package soon, said that "in the medium term and then into the long term, we will need to invest significant amounts to restore people's confidence in the economy."