Canadian couple fined after flying to remote town for Covid-19 vaccination

The Yukon community had been made a priority for vaccinations in part because of its remoteness.
The Yukon community had been made a priority for vaccinations in part because of its remoteness.PHOTO: AFP

VANCOUVER (NYTIMES) - A Canadian couple violated coronavirus restrictions when they travelled to the Yukon Territory last week to get vaccinated, according to the authorities, prompting accusations of entitlement and raising concerns about infection in a remote community of about 100 people.

The couple, Rodney and Ekaterina Baker, of Vancouver, British Columbia, face fines of US$1,000 (S$1,325) for failing to isolate themselves for 14 days after they travelled to Yukon, even though they said they would, court records show.

Additionally, Rodney Baker, 55, who was the chief executive of the Great Canadian Gaming Corp, which operates casinos and hotels across Canada, resigned from his position Sunday (Jan 24). Ekaterina Baker, 32, is an actress.

According to charging documents and Yukon authorities, the Bakers travelled about 1,200 miles (1,931km) to Yukon's capital city, Whitehorse, on Jan 19.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp reported that instead of quarantining for the required 14 days, the couple chartered a flight to Beaver Creek, which is about 300 miles north-west of Whitehorse, last Thursday, claimed to be working at a motel in the area and got their shots.

They returned to Whitehorse before the authorities, acting on a tip from Beaver Creek, found them later that day, according to court records.

"I am outraged by this selfish behaviour and find it disturbing that people would choose to put fellow Canadians at risk in this manner," Mr John Streicker, Yukon's community services minister, said in a statement.

"Reports allege these individuals were deceptive and violated emergency measures for their own advantage, which is completely unacceptable at any time, but especially during a public health crisis."

Ms Janet Vander Meer, a member of the White River First Nation who has been volunteering for months to help manage her community's response to the pandemic, went to the community centre in Beaver Creek when a mobile vaccination team came to town Thursday.

It went smoothly, she said, and both she and her 72-year-old mother got doses of the Moderna vaccine. But she said that her blood boiled on Friday when she learnt that a married couple had been accused of misrepresenting who they were and violating protocols in order to get their shots.

"The first thing that came to my mind is privilege," Ms Vander Meer, 53, said. "How dare they? I was outraged."

Amid a global vaccine roll-out, questions about who should get the shots first have been informed by the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, from disproportionately high rates of infection and death among poor people and people of colour to disparate access to testing and healthcare.

These issues have become especially fraught amid vaccine shortages and distribution snafus in recent weeks. Now they are a subject of special ire in Beaver Creek.

Ms Angela Demit, the chief of the White River First Nation, called the Bakers "privileged multimillionaires" in a statement Monday and questioned why they were "putting our community at risk to jump the queue."

"It's clear to me that because we are a predominantly Indigenous community, that they assumed we were naive," she added. "There must be a clear signal sent that this behaviour is unacceptable."

Efforts to reach the Bakers on Tuesday were unsuccessful, and it was unclear whether they were being represented by a lawyer.

The Great Canadian Gaming Corp announced Rodney Baker's resignation Monday. It later said in a statement that the company "takes health and safety protocols extremely seriously, and our company strictly follows all directives and guidance issued by public health authorities in each jurisdiction where we operate."

Beaver Creek, which relies heavily on traffic from the Alaska Highway, has suffered economically amid travel restrictions during the pandemic. The community was made a priority for vaccinations in part because of its remoteness, and shots were made available to adults of all ages. Yukon identification cards were not required.

Beaver Creek is home to many older citizens and one small health clinic. The nearest hospital is hours away. Sitting on a border with Alaska, the community is a stone's throw from the United States, which has had more coronavirus cases than any other country.

The people of Beaver Creek have been especially diligent about preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Ms Vander Meer said, and the vaccinations on Thursday felt like a reunion - a chance to see neighbours and exchange socially distanced greetings in the community centre's gymnasium after months of relative isolation.

But news reports about the couple from Vancouver cast a pall over the occasion, Ms Vander Meer said, and raised concerns about whether the community had been exposed to the virus - and questions about whether the fines were enough to prevent future harm.

"How," she asked, "is that going to deter other people from doing the same thing to even more remote communities?"