WASHINGTON — “It’s good news for people who have been waiting for good news for 16 months.” That was the assessment Friday from Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents Buffalo, N.Y. in the U.S. Congress, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated fully vaccinated American travellers may be able to cross the border into Canada starting in mid-August.
The White House and U.S. border officials remained silent Friday on whether a similar announcement regarding Canadians crossing U.S. land borders was imminent, but Higgins and others watching closely expected the two countries would be announcing changes in tandem next week after the long pandemic wait.
“It’s the beginning of the end, I think, of border restrictions,” Higgins said. “That said, you know, it remains to be seen, specifically how this is carried out.”
As the Star reported Thursday night, Trudeau made the comments in a call with provincial premiers, saying that if vaccination and public health metrics continue on current trajectories, fully vaccinated American citizens may be allowed to enter Canada beginning in the middle of August, and fully vaccinated travellers from elsewhere in the world may be allowed to visit beginning in September. A fuller announcement of Trudeau’s plans is expected next week, perhaps as soon as Monday.
Many in the U.S. were excited to hear the news, after months of calling on Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden to gradually reopen the border. Higgins, who is the chair of the congressional border caucus, has been involved in a series of increasingly pleading bipartisan statements demanding progress on a file that long seemed frozen. In recent months, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, joined those calls. This week, legislators at the Midwest legislative conference formally called for the border to be reopened to fully vaccinated travellers.
Despite all the pressure from U.S. politicians, Biden’s administration hasn’t yet confirmed that the border opening will be reciprocal. The White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Customs and Border Protection all failed to respond to questions from the Star on Friday about its plans, and its response to Trudeau’s comments.
While the topic of the Canadian border was not specifically addressed at Friday’s White House media briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki did speak more generally about cross-border travel. “All decisions about reopening international travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts,” she said, noting ongoing discussions with working groups. “We must be vigilant, particularly about the spread of variants. We’ll reopen when health and medical experts expect it is safe to do.”
During a briefing earlier in the day, White House COVID-19 co-ordinator Jeff Zients said almost exactly the same thing, further noting that advice to the president would be based on “many metrics, including case rates, vaccination rates and the prevalence of any variants, including the Delta variant.”
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Despite no quick confirmation from U.S. officials, Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council in Washington — a longtime expert on cross-border relations — said she expected the governments are working together and will reopen borders on the same schedule. “The U.S. and Canada have strived to make these announcements together. And it appears that that’s where we’re going with this,” Greenwood said. “And that’s appropriate. It is much better to manage our common border together.”
The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to all but citizens and residents of each respective country, except those considered “essential” for trade or family humanitarian reasons, since March 21, 2020. A bizarre and mostly unexplained exception has allowed Canadians to enter the U.S. by air but not by land or sea from the beginning. Canada, which has no such exemption for air travellers, had imposed harsh quarantine rules on those entering from outside the country, but lifted those on fully vaccinated Canadian citizens earlier this month.
Greenwood and Higgins, among others, agree that there remain a lot of questions to be answered as details of policy changes emerge next week. How, for instance, will vaccination status be verified, given the resistance among many to the concept of vaccine passports? Florida recently passed a law making it illegal to demand proof of vaccination, and Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he won’t impose any proof-of-vaccination system for Ontario.
Another key issue will be how to manage the pent-up demand of travellers at airports and 120 land border crossings to prevent epic wait times and chaotic crowd scenes.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get further clarity on what the prime minister’s opening plan will look like,” Higgins said.
The U.S. lawmaker is also hopeful that, in addition to providing relief to businesses and the fully vaccinated, the plan will serve as inspiration for the unvaccinated.
“It will have, obviously, the impact that it’s intend to for those who have been separated for 16 months, those who have not been able to visit and enjoy their cottages,” Higgins said.
“But also, just underscoring the importance of getting vaccinated — encouraging people who aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated, recognizing that they can’t move across the borders unless they are.”
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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