Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that at least 50% of Canadians have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, but in order for his government to consider a relaxation of border restrictions with the United States, he said that “cases need to be under control and at least 75% of people need to be vaccinated.”
As Trudeau has just recently secured sufficient vaccine supply to achieve that milestone, he anticipates that his country won’t reach it until the fall. Unfortunately, his goal is farther away than many would hope.
The US-Canada border has been closed to nonessential travel, including recreation and tourism, since the onset of pandemic emergency rule in March 2020. Only recently has Canada relaxed some land border crossing rules to allow for visiting family members. In those instances, as well as for any nonessential travelers by air, must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before arrival in Canada, take another test upon arrival, and quarantine in a government-approved hotel to await their results.
A multitude of stories have been published describing the stress and strain the prolonged closure has caused, for families and businesses, from Washington, to Michigan, to Vermont, to Maine. Yet, it continues. Many of us might have taken it for granted, but the past year has shown just how integral the free flow of people across the US-Canada border is to so many communities on both sides.
US Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York have publicly voiced their frustrations with the continued closure over the last few months.
On February 25, Sen. Collins sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to urge the federal government to ease some US-Canada cross-border travel rules related to COVID-19 and allow nonessential travel with negative test or proof of vaccination. Collins decried the disparity between policy and relative risks, writing that “the border closure has created significant disruptions for people and businesses in these tight-knit communities without regard for the localized risk of COVID-19 transmission, which is often lower in rural border areas than elsewhere in the country. “
Sen. Schumer called attention to the matter on a visit to Niagara, New York on May 5. He sent a letter to Sec. Mayorkas and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and urged renewed discussions on reopening the border. Schumer explained that, “due to the rising rates of vaccinated Americans and the subsequent decline in cases in New York and elsewhere, it has become abundantly clear that an agreement can and should be reached to safely accommodate the border communities without compromising the fight against COVID-19.”
It turns out “nonessential travel” is quite essential to the economies of both countries. In 2019 alone, more than 21 million Canadian visitors spent $22.6 billion in the U.S., second only to visitors from China in total spending. American visitors to Canada spent $11.1B in 2019—just under half of all foreign tourist spending.
Some states have borne the costs of the closure worse than others. New York, Florida, and California all attract large numbers of Canadian tourists every year, but for those larger states, Canadian visitors might look like a drop in the bucket compared to the overall economy.
For Maine, a small state with deep ties to its neighboring Canadian provinces, an entire summer’s loss in tourism revenue from this critical demographic can be economically crushing. In 2019, Canadians spent almost $1.2 billion in Maine, making up more than 14% of all overnight stays that year. In 2014, Maine attracted the 7th most Canadian visitors of any state, spending $384 million in 2019 US dollars.
Despite the impassioned calls from Sens. Collins and Schumer, the US Department of Homeland Security says it expects the border to remain closed at least until the end of June. A group of 60 Canadian business groups pressed Prime Minister Trudeau earlier this month to relax restrictions, but at this point, it looks like Trudeau has the first and last say on the matter.
Members of Canada’s Parliament, in addition to more US Senators and Representatives of border states, as well as President Biden, must press for a speedy normalization of the world’s longest—and probably most friendly—international border. It has already been too long. The fabric of border communities, thousands of families, and the future of rich cultural exchange between these two nations, depends on it.
Photo Credit: Andy8Kahn, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons