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May 28, 2022

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In Our View: Roadblocks remain at U.S.-Canada border

The Columbian
Published:

After more than 19 months of COVID restrictions, the border between the United States and Canada opened this week — for the most part.

While vehicle travel is permitted, restrictions still exist for entering Canada. To bolster Washington’s economy, a return to pre-COVID travel levels is necessary.

Canada allowed border crossings beginning in August — provided visitors were fully vaccinated against COVID and had a negative coronavirus test in the previous 72 hours. The caveats apply to returning Canadian residents, as well, a fact that limits casual travel between the nations.

The Biden administration was slow to echo Canada’s policy, finally opening the border to vehicle, rail and ferry traffic this week. Essential travel already had been allowed, but month-to-month extensions of the recreational travel closure led to frustration and confusion in border communities.

Meanwhile, the United States was allowing airline passengers from Canada to land in this country — a loophole that points out the capriciousness of the policy. If visitors from Canada are especially likely to bring coronavirus with them, the risk does not change with the method of travel.

As Laurie Trautman of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University told The Seattle Times: “If we were really just concerned about people’s health, we had ways to screen for that a long time ago. If you don’t live with the border every day, then you can’t appreciate the impact of something like these restrictions.”

Commerce with our Canadian neighbors is essential to the economy for border communities — and therefore to all of Washington. The border crossing in Whatcom County is the third-busiest between the nations; overall, Canadians made an estimated 20 million trips to the United States in 2019.

In Whatcom County, more than 10 percent of retail sales tax and more than half of fuel-tax revenue typically depends on tourists, officials say. With border crossings about 10 percent of normal over the past year and a half, that has meant a loss of more than $200 million.

And there are ripple effects. As a Whatcom County official told the Vancouver (B.C.) Sun earlier this year: “We’ve been devastated by the closure of the border. And it’s not just Canadians who are no longer coming to the Northwest corner of the U.S. It’s Californians, Oregonians and Washingtonians, all of whom used to travel through the area to take a ferry to Victoria or drive through the land border crossings on their way to Vancouver, Whistler or Alaska.”

The border closure also has separated families. The Kootenai Tribe in North Idaho and the Lower Kootenay Band in British Columbia both are part of the Ktunaxa Nation with land on both sides of the border. Many tribal members reportedly have dual citizenship and frequently cross the border to see family during normal times.

The U.S.-Canada border stretches for 5,525 miles — the longest international border in the world — and Washington’s portion covers 427 miles and includes 13 official crossings. That has created a long-standing allegiance and reliance between the two nations.

Now, the only remaining roadblock to that allegiance appears to be Canada’s requirement of a negative COVID test, regardless of vaccination status. Caution is understandable, given the United States’ inability to get the pandemic under control, but we hope leaders in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa can reach an agreement that is beneficial to our state’s border communities.

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