WASHINGTON—This week, I told U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins that when it comes to the state of discussions about reopening the Canada-U. S. border, officials at the negotiating table are being very quiet.
“I think you’re being generous. I don’t think there is a table. I don’t think anybody’s at it. Therein lies the problem.”
So yeah, if you were thinking about a vacation in the U.S. this summer — or of having relatives who live down south come visit you — maybe come up with a Plan B.
Higgins, the co-chair of the U.S. Congressional Northern Border Caucus, represents Western New York, where frequent cross-border travel is both a way of life and a linchpin of the economy. When I spoke to him earlier this year, he was advocating a plan to possibly loosen restrictions on border travel by Canada Day or July 4, or at least to have some guidelines in place about when, how and under what circumstances reopening might take place. This week, tens of millions of vaccinations later, he was suggesting September as a new possible date to shoot for. Even on that, he didn’t sound particularly optimistic.
“A public health crisis can be managed and at the same time, you can begin to lift some restrictions,” Higgins said of his position that the definition of “essential travellers” should be expanded, possibly with some sort of vaccine requirement. “If you wait for this to be eradicated, the border’s never gonna open again.”
The border has been closed to most travellers since March of 2020. Since then, there have been almost monthly stories full of expert speculation about how and when a phased-in reopening plan might come. All along, these have been accompanied by no official word other than a monthly announcement that the current restrictions have been extended another month. Expect another extension announcement next week. And then probably another one a month after that.
A drop in the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the wide availability of vaccines fuelled hopes things would be different this summer. For so many it can’t happen soon enough. Fully vaccinated Canadians living in the U.S. haven’t seen their families for over a year because they don’t have enough vacation time to build in a two-week quarantine in Canada. Higgins’ New York constituents who own cottages in Fort Erie, Ont. Border resort destinations like Old Orchard Beach, Maine where 60 per cent of a typical year’s tourist business comes from Canadians, or “Sunset Country” in northwestern Ontario where 95 per cent of fishing lodge rentals are to Americans.
The border isn’t entirely shut down, even for travel not considered essential. Under the current rules, Canadians can visit the U.S. as long as they quarantine when they return, and it is possible under some circumstances for visiting Canadian citizens to quarantine in the same house as those they plan to visit. It remains much harder for Americans to visit Canada for any non-essential reason, even if they own property there.
In any event, the numbers show the current restrictions have had a dramatic effect on the number of people crossing the border: A Statistics Canada report released Tuesday morning on international travel to Canada last month showed arrivals to Canada from the U.S. by both land and air were up significantly from April 2020, but were still down more than 90 per cent by land and 96.5 per cent by air when compared to April 2019.
And there have been some signs that a change may be on the horizon, though there is little momentum at the moment.
On his second day in office in January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order demanding his cabinet report on the issue of COVID-19 public health measures at the border within two weeks. Almost four months later, there’s been no public indication that report was written.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote to Biden’s cabinet urging them to work with Canada to “finally develop a transparent, bilateral, and public plan” to safely reopen the border to non-essential travel — urgently, he wrote, before another “summer season” is lost. He’s among the most powerful members of the legislative branch of government, and is a Democrat, like Biden and Higgins.
Meanwhile, earlier this month Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu said some form of vaccine passport would be a requirement for entry upon reopening Canada to visitors, a sign changes to travel policy are at least under consideration.
Tuesday, Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, said he’d discussed principles “for reopening the travel sector” with his G7 counterparts recently as part of a “comprehensive, ongoing effort,” but without a resolution in sight. “I can’t give you a time when we’re going to start seeing the gradual reopening, because it’s going to continue to be guided by public health measures and public health advice and public health experts.”
On the other hand, Premier Doug Ford has publicly suggested in recent weeks that restrictions at the U.S. border should be made stricter, not relaxed. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is still listing Canada as a destination Americans should avoid all travel to as a “Level 4” very high-risk country for COVID.
Officials close to the discussions on the border have been unwilling to speak on the record. Experts reading the tea leaves recently have been projecting no likely change until late summer or fall. The conversations I have had with those familiar with the process in both countries indicate nothing is likely to happen in the next few months.
To some, that sounds prudent. Others will find it a hard to swallow. Higgins, the U.S. representative, says he’ll keep arguing to at least develop a framework and criteria for decision-making on the question.
“Just a glimmer of recognition, a glimmer of hope. To say, here are the metrics that we want to reach, and if we reach them, we can get closer to a border opening,” Higgins says. “Nobody is arguing for opening the border arbitrarily or comprehensively. Just, you know, some semblance of vision, albeit limited vision, for return to normalcy.”