FREDERICTON -- The CEO of the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce says the sooner the Atlantic bubble can be restored, the better.

Sheri Somerville says businesses are eager for COVID-19 restrictions to ease and borders to reopen to allow free travel within the region. The bubble last summer allowed residents of the four provinces to travel within the region without having to isolate for 14 days.

"We need business to get back to business and people to get back to work," Somerville said in an interview Monday. "The earlier we can open up and get the Atlantic bubble in place, that's going to help our retail and our restaurants. It's also going to help our hospitality and tourism sectors because we know that helped us last year.

"The longer we wait, the bigger the chance of us losing a season again," she said. "That would be catastrophic to tourism."

On Sunday, Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King told the CBC he hopes the bubble can reopen in early spring.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said Monday he supports the concept of the Atlantic bubble, but said he isn't ready yet to set a date for its return because his priority is to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in his province.

"We also have to look at the epidemiology in other regions, in the other Atlantic provinces before we consider the bubble again," Furey told reporters. "Hopefully as the vaccines continue to roll out and the numbers continue to recover both in our province and others, it is certainly something we'd entertain."

New Brunswick chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell says the key to reopening the bubble is getting infections under control, especially now that variants are present in the region.

"We are in a race against time to get our folks vaccinated," Russell said in an interview Monday. "It would be nice to find a sweet spot between the percentage of the populations that are vaccinated in all the Atlantic provinces where we would feel comfortable that we have enough level of protection.

"I think the overall goal is to get us to an Atlantic bubble again at some time in the future and hopefully have a Canadian bubble at some time in the future," she said.

Russell said rather than setting a target date for reopening the bubble, provinces should wait until a certain percentage of their populations have been vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Marla MacInnis, spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia government, said residents of Prince Edward Island are still permitted to travel into Nova Scotia without the 14-day isolation requirement.

"We continue to monitor the epidemiology in all Atlantic provinces and remain in close contact with our counterparts in those provinces," she said in an email. "We're hopeful that if case numbers stay consistently low in the Atlantic region that we can get back to enjoying travel between our neighbours with no requirement to self-isolate."

Somerville said while businesses are eager to welcome customers from other provinces, they realize they have to do it safely. A lot of businesses have been struggling to survive through the pandemic, she said, adding that the true impact probably won't be known until financial supports from government are no longer available.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021.