‘This doesn’t feel like the right moment’ to reopen U.S. border, Canadian official says

David Rasbach
·8 min read

The COVID-induced closure of the border between U.S. and Canada is set to expire this week, but all signs are pointing to that ban on non-essential travel between the two countries being extended another month.

In fact, with COVID cases, hospitalizations and death totals increasing north of the border, the question isn’t whether we will be seeing our friends from British Columbia anytime soon, but rather will they be allowed to travel to see their Canadian neighbors in Alberta, the Northwest Territories or the Yukon Territory.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan is considering restricting travel to and from the province in an effort to stem a third wave of the disease in the country, according to a CBC story.

“We’ve not taken anything off the table, but practicality is first and foremost in our mind,” Horgan said according to the CBC. “We will use the tools that are available to us if we believe they are effective, but deployment of those tools is a challenge. We haven’t taken travel restrictions off the board, quite frankly.”

A number have experts have called on government leaders to make the move to curb the spread of COVID variants, according to a CBC story, especially the P.1 (Brazil variant), which has been detected in 555 cases within the province in the past week.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he supports restricting travel between provinces and territories in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

“Every step of the way, I’ve been supporting premiers and territorial leaders on what they need to do to keep people safe,” Trudeau told the CBC. “As we saw with the Atlantic bubble, as we saw with the Arctic territories, they make decisions around closing off the regions. That is something that we are supportive of.”

Ontario announced Friday that it was closing its provincial borders to non-essential travel, according to a Ottawa Citizen story.

That comes as Canada’s seven-day average of new cases per million residents (207.27 average) surpassed the rate of the United States (206.66 average) last weekend, according to a WebMD story.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even issued a warning to U.S. travelers to avoid Canada for now, even if they are fully vaccinated.

The U.S. and Canada first agreed to close the border in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the opening stages of the pandemic in mid-March 2020. The closure began March 21 has since been extended on month-by-month basis 12 times now.

It was last extended on March 18 and is currently set to expire Wednesday, April 21 — though chances the closure isn’t extended again seem very slim.

Earlier this month, Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said it was too soon for the Canadian federal government to engage in discussion with the U.S. about reopening the border.

“This doesn’t feel like the right moment to have those conversations,” LeBlanc told CBC.

“We do recognize, as vaccination rates go up and, hopefully, as we see the public health measures that are in place now bring down those case counts, there will be a conversation that we can have both with the American administration and with provinces and territories about what is the right posture at the international borders.

“But for the moment, there’s no active discussion [about] adjusting those measures.”

Congressman calls for phased reopening

Despite the climbing numbers in Canada, New York Rep. Brian Higgins is calling for a phased reopening beginning next month, according to a story by Spectrum News.

“President Biden has said that we should be back to a semblance of normalcy by July 4, and we need a plan so as to give people something to look forward to as it relates to the opening of the U.S.-Canadian border,” Higgins said, according to Spectrum News.

Higgins is asking the Department of Homeland Security to expand its definition of essential travelers allowed to cross the border to include people with property, business interests or family members on the other side of the border — a move he said “can be done both safely and successfully,” according to the story.

Higgins is also pushing for a full reopening by July, the story said, though he thinks safe social distancing, masks and vaccination should be a requirement.

“I think it is fair at a time of a public health crisis to require people that want to move between the United States and Canada, that they have to have a vaccine,” he said. “It’s intended to keep them safe, but also their family and our Canadian neighbors.”

Higgins isn’t alone, as protesters in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday, April 12, took to Pat Sole Park near the Peace Bridge to call on government leaders to find a solution to allowing families separated by the border to reunite, according to a story by local TV station WIVB.

COVID numbers update

As of Friday afternoon, the United States continues to have the highest number of COVID cases in the world with more than 31.5 million confirmed cases and 566,000 related deaths, according to the John Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard. Canada, meanwhile, was 22nd overall with more than 1.1 million cases and 23,000 related deaths.

The U.S. is the third-most populated country in the world with more than 331 million residents, according to worlometers.info, while Canada is No. 39 with more than 37 million residents.

According to the British Columbia COVID-19 dashboard as of Thursday, April 16, the province has seen 116,075 total cases during the pandemic and 1,524 confirmed deaths — an increase of 26,648 cases and 113 deaths since the last border extension was announced March 18. With a population of approximately 5.1 million, British Columbia has seen an infection rate of 522.5 cases and 2.2 deaths per 100,000 residents since March 18.

The Washington State Department of Health, meanwhile, reported 355,387 confirmed cases and 5,362 related deaths on Thursday — an increase of 24,278 cases and 206 deaths since March 18. With a population of approximately 7.5 million, the state has averaged 323.7 cases and 2.7 deaths per 100,000 residents since March 18.

Washington state reports administering 4,299,351 vaccine doses, or approximately 0.57 doses per resident, while British Columbia reports administering 1,235,863 doses, or approximately 0.24 per resident.

Closure economic impact

Whatcom County is certainly feeling the economic impact of the border closure, which is now less than a week away from marking a full year.

The Western Washington University Border Policy Research Institute found before the pandemic that Canadians comprise approximately 75% of cross-border travelers to and from Whatcom County, depending on the exchange rate when the border is open, according to information Director Laurie Trautman emailed to The Bellingham Herald for an earlier story.

In 2018, that would have represented approximately 10.5 million southbound Canadian travelers through the Blaine, Lynden, Sumas and Point Roberts points of entry.

Those Canadians represent a large portion of consumers in Whatcom County — anywhere from 2% to 46% of the weekend customer base Whatcom County retailers see, Trautman reported, adding that the average is about 17%.

Essential travel between the two countries is still allowed, though, and that includes transportation of freight.

Bureau of Transportation statistics show that freight shipments across the border were down in January, after making some recovery in late 2020.

The statistics show transborder freight crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada in January was down 3.7% from December and down 4.5% from January 2020 numbers.

Transborder freight by truck between the two countries was slightly up (0.1%) from December, though, and up 1.9% from January 2020, as $26.6 billion worth of freight was shipped.

Loophole paying off

In spite of the border closure, Canadian tourists are stimulating the economies of communities along the border, including Whatcom County.

Canadians who fly in from outside the country are required to quarantine in a hotel if they fly from the U.S. into a Canadian airport, according to Travel Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, and they are required to pay for their stay — sometimes up to $2,000.

But Canadian snowbirds returning home have been getting around those restrictions by arriving in U.S. airports near the border and making the last part of the trip by land in the comfort of a limousine or taxi — some even dropping them off at their homes, according to a CBC story.

“When Canada imposed that hotel [quarantine], then it was just like our phones were exploding,” Buffalo Limousine owner Carla Boccio told CBC. “What I hear from the majority of these people, it’s not even so much the cost, it’s like you’re in jail … with this hotel quarantine.”

Boccio estimated here company is transporting, on average, 50 customers per day across the border.

Evergreen Town Car in Bellingham, on its website and Facebook page, advertises rides across the border to their final destination in Canada, not only from Bellingham International Airport, but even from SeaTac and Everett’s Paine Field.

“Yes, we’ve seen quite a few — more than we can handle,” an Evergreen representative told The Bellingham Herald.

The representative said customers are quite happy with the service the company is providing and that they have picked up customers from a number of different airports in the region.