WASHINGTON — The pressure is mounting for the U.S. and Canadian governments to lift or at least loosen restrictions at their shared border after 16 months, with seemingly no end point in sight.
With COVID-19 vaccinations rising and infection rates plummeting, border communities, travel groups and long-separated families are anxious for officials, at minimum, to lay out a plan for reopening the 5,500-mile land boundary. Instead, the governments announced another extension of the restrictions through at least July 21.
“They are very frustrated because nobody can really explain what the holdup is,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who co-chairs the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group.
“You look at the effects here in Michigan or in northern New York — any one of the border states. There (are) some real impacts happening.”
Business owners, would-be tourists and people with property on the other side of the border are fretting about losing out on a second summer season. Families and friends long separated — many now vaccinated — are eager to reunite. Huizenga’s wife, Natalie, who is from the Toronto area, hasn’t seen her parents in Canada for more than a year and a half.
High-profile exceptions, like for National Hockey League players during the Stanley Cup finals, have disgusted more than a few people.
“So COVID doesn’t affect you if you’re skating in the NHL?” Huizenga said. “What I think drives people crazy are the inconsistencies.”
The Canadian government did make a change at the border, effective Monday, allowing fully vaccinated Canadian citizens or permanent residents who test negative for COVID-19 to return to the country without observing some of Canada’s strict 14-day quarantine rules.
But fully vaccinated Americans who want to cross for nonessential reasons still may not enter. That’s despite the recommendation last month of an expert panel to the Canadian ministry of health that advised allowing fully vaccinated travelers to enter Canada as long as they had a negative COVID-19 test.
On the U.S. side, officials have continued to resist travel exceptions for the reunification of family members or unmarried couples.
Asked last week for an update, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted the United States has set up a task force with Canadian officials to discuss what criteria should be and when it would be safe to reopen.
“We’re guided by our public health officials, but I don’t have any updates on the timeline at this point,” Psaki said.
Members of Congress have significantly upped the pressure on President Joe Biden to loosen the restrictions, pointing out that he had wanted the country to be mostly “back to normal” by the Fourth of July.
Setting up expert task forces is “not a good sign that things are going to move quickly,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University.
“Because working groups don’t tend to move very quickly in the government,” Trautman said, “I would stand by an estimate I gave recently, which is that by Labor Day fully vaccinated travelers will be able to cross, regardless of nationality and trip purpose.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, whose New York district includes Niagara Falls and Buffalo, on Twitter called another month’s delay “bull—-.”
He said the refusal to crack open the border doesn’t follow science, or even the position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully inoculated individuals can return to pre-pandemic activity without masking, quarantining or social distancing.
“For the last 16 months, we’ve been told the game-changing moment would be the availability of vaccines. Now, 37% of Canadians are fully vaccinated and nearly 50% of Americans. Those people should be allowed to cross the border,” Higgins said.
“There’s only two people that can make this happen: the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. They need to engage and develop a plan.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a cautious approach. He initially said he’d relax the border rules only after at least 75% of Canadians got their first shot and 20% were fully vaccinated. Ottawa has since raised that benchmark to 75% fully vaccinated.
“We all want to get back to normal. We want to start traveling again,” Trudeau said at a late June news conference. “At each stage, our priority has always been and must remain the safety of Canadians. I understand that people want to travel. We want to get this behind us, and we will.”
Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., is optimistic that Canada can “rocket past” that 75% fully vaccinated benchmark within a few weeks, noting the country’s national health care system and lack of right-wing vaccine hesitancy.
“At that point, it’s time for Canada and the U.S. to reopen the border,” Levin said.
Part of what is driving the hesitancy in Canada is the variants of the virus, but also domestic politics, Trautman said.
It’s widely expected that the Trudeau government will call an election soon, either this summer or fall, and Canadian public opinion has broadly favored keeping the border restrictions in place.
“If you look at some of the words and language that Trudeau uses, it’s really all about ‘keeping Canadians safe,’ without any real substance to that messaging, so I think he’s definitely pandering to his base because there’s an election year coming up,” Trautman said.
Interprovincial politics are also at play, with Ontario’s Conservative Premier Doug Ford having criticized Trudeau, a Liberal, for not being tough enough on the border. But Ford lifted some COVID-19 restrictions in the province recently, moving to stage two of reopening last month.
“Here, more states are reopening, and the U.S. is ready to go. But Canada is just in a very different place, just coming out of lockdown. It’s not surprising they are not ready to open the border,” Trautman said. “But there’s safe ways to do it.”
Officials instituted the restrictions in March 2020 and have renewed them by 30 days, month after month. Americans haven’t been able to visit Canada except for essential travel by workers such as nurses and truck drivers. Canadians have been permitted to enter the United States by air.
At the once-busy land crossing at Detroit-Windsor, 1.9 million Americans entered Canada by personal vehicle in 2020, compared with 7.6 million in 2019 — a decline of 75%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Bus passengers dropped 87% from 90,000 to about 11,600.
At Port Huron-Sarnia, the number of vehicle passengers fell 83% from nearly 3 million to about 507,500. The crossing at Sault Ste. Marie saw a similar drop of 82%, going from nearly 1.2 million vehicle passengers in 2019 to 218,800 in 2020.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates the U.S. economy loses $340 million every week the border restrictions are in place.
Border mayors are losing patience with the lack of transparency about a road map to reopening or metrics for the thresholds that the two nations must meet.
“I’m as in the dark as everyone else,” Port Huron Mayor Pauline Repp said. “I certainly hope the two governments on the federal level get together and decide what they could do. … We’re almost a year and a half into this. It’s not new. It would be nice to be more informed and have those conversations.”
Across the St. Clair River in Sarnia, Ontario, Mayor Mike Bradley is hoping to see a gradual, phased approach to reopening: “We don’t want an Oklahoma land rush.”
He also has heard frustration among local leaders over the lack of a plan.
“When we don’t know what the rules will be, how do you do prepare?” Bradley said. “We want to just do it right because we get it wrong, trying to pull back the opening will be devastating for Canadians and Americans.”
Bradley hopes priority is given in the early stages of reopening for humanitarian cases, such as the woman in Canada who was dying from cancer who wanted her sister from Ohio to be at her side.
“We couldn’t get it through the bureaucracy in time,” Bradley said.
Mayor Jim Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ontario, said his community thrives on tourism, and a quarter of the 14 million visitors that come to his community in a typical year are Americans.
“What we’re asking, at the very least, is to expand the definition of an ‘essential worker’ to someone who’s been fully vaccinated. Because they don’t pose a threat,” he said.
Diodati was on a recent conference call with Canadian Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair, who suggested the country is on track to having the vast majority of Canadians fully vaccinated by July 21 — a date that Diodati is holding out hope for.
“I’m glad the American politicians are leaning on us. We think that’s what it takes. We almost need the U.S. to say, ‘We’re going to unilaterally open,’” Diodati said. “Let that put the pressure on our politicians to make the right decision.”