Calls grow for Canada, U.S. to provide ‘vision’ on how border could reopen

Click to play video: 'Political pressure to reopen Canada-U.S. border during pandemic'
Political pressure to reopen Canada-U.S. border during pandemic
WATCH: Political pressure to reopen Canada-U.S. border during pandemic – May 20, 2021

Calls are growing to reopen the Canada-U.S. border as COVID-19 vaccination rates rise in both countries.

One of the loudest is coming from a U.S. lawmaker — New York Rep. Brian Higgins — who says it’s time that both governments provide a “vision” for how it could be reopened.

“The frustration has been that both the federal government in Canada and the United States has failed to provide any information beyond the fact that the border is going to be closed another 30 days,” said Higgins, who has written to U.S. President Joe Biden on the matter several times.

“Vaccines are a very powerful tool…. I think that needs to be recognized in some way.”

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There’s no question Canada has seen improvements in recent weeks. National case counts, while still high, are gradually declining and some provinces are readying new phased reopening plans. Vaccination rates have also surged, thanks to a significant and reliable uptick in shipments from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

In fact, after months of Canadians peering enviably over the fence at the U.S., Canada is on the cusp of surpassing its neighbour on first-dose coverage. As of publication, about 47.84 per cent of Canada’s eligible population had received one shot versus about 47.9 per cent of Americans.

Given the progress on both sides, Higgins believes it’s time to rethink the current rules at the border.

“As opposed to announcing another closure, let’s say that when 30 to 60 days (passes), we can look at that category of essential travel or to include more travellers, in recognition of the availability of vaccines and the distribution and administration of vaccines,” he said.

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Click to play video: '‘No one expected it to last this long’: Canada-U.S. border restrictions near 1-year mark'
‘No one expected it to last this long’: Canada-U.S. border restrictions near 1-year mark

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is of the same thinking.

CEO Perrin Beatty says there needs to be more transparency about what criteria the government proposes to use. He says the 14-month closure has created “enormous difficulties” for Canadian businesses, particularly for the tourism sector.

“You can’t simply throw on a light switch and suddenly tourism is back on,” he told Global News.

“It takes months to put things together, and people need to have at least some sense as to what criteria are going to be used, even if they don’t know the exact dates yet.”

Canada and the U.S. confirmed Thursday that the border would remain closed to non-essential travel for at least another month. U.S. Homeland Security said it is working closely with Canada and Mexico to “safely ease restrictions as conditions improve.”

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The conditions just aren’t rosy enough for either country, according to Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa.

Click to play video: 'Canadian health official says country’s COVID-19 vaccine coverage likely to impact border reopening'
Canadian health official says country’s COVID-19 vaccine coverage likely to impact border reopening

“Opening the border means compromising that strategy of reducing the probability of a non-immune person being exposed to the virus,” he said.

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“Vaccines aren’t perfect. The way you keep them at maximum optimization, especially at this stage, is ensuing the infection rates are very, very low. We’re a far cry from there.”

Some, like Ontario Premier Doug Ford, don’t think current border restrictions are going far enough.

Ford has taken aim at what he considers lax restrictions at the borders in recent months. He has blamed the increased spread of COVID-19 variants on the Canada-U.S. border.

The premier has sent multiple letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arguing additional measures — such as quarantine requirements for travellers coming into Canada by land, like those applied to passengers flying in from abroad — are needed to curb the virus’s spread.

Trudeau has pushed back, saying finger-pointing won’t help Ontarians tackle the third wave, but said he’s willing to work with Ontario to further limit the number of people allowed to enter the province.

Click to play video: 'Ford calls for mandatory quarantine for U.S. border travellers, tighter air measures'
Ford calls for mandatory quarantine for U.S. border travellers, tighter air measures

At this point, Higgins says some of the protocols are “no longer relevant” given the arrival of vaccines.

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“I think the Canadian federal government primarily has failed to recognize the significance of the availability of vaccines. We’ve been told for 14 months that would be the inflection point, that would be the game-changer,” he said.

“It’s short-sighted. It does a disservice to the people in the respective countries, and the United States is at fault as well.”

Higgins has argued in his letters to Biden that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is proving his point. In recent days, the CDC has issued bold new guidelines, declaring that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear face masks in nearly all situations, including indoors.

He believes that decision affirms the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and suggests it would mean low risk for Canadians when visiting family or property in the U.S.

Canada is not quite ready to release guidelines for vaccinated Canadians. The country’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, said it will only happen “when safe” and removing mask recommendations will be last in line.

Deonandan said those things “aren’t a priority” for Canada right now — “we’re still far away from two-dose coverage” — but acknowledges there’s still a lot to be worked out.

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“We have to remind ourselves we’re not the Americans. The American situation is different from ours,” he said.

But as more Canadians get vaccinated, Beatty says amendments need to get adjusted and communicated to businesses and stakeholders, particularly when it comes to quarantine rules for travellers.

Click to play video: 'U.S. taxi and limos facilitating cross border travel to avoid quarantine'
U.S. taxi and limos facilitating cross border travel to avoid quarantine

The government recently agreed to allow Canadian residents to travel to the U.S. for a COVID-19 vaccine and avoid quarantine on return, but Beatty says traveller eligibility could be expanded now and could help facilitate an incremental reopening for the border at large.

“It doesn’t make sense for snowbirds coming back from Florida over the past few weeks. If your grandmother came back and she was fully vaccinated, does it make sense to force her into a quarantine hotel?” he said.

“These issues have to be resolved. At this point, it’s not clear what approach they’re going to take.”

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Providing clarity on what it would take for borders to reopen safely would actually be an incentive for Canadians to get vaccinated and help them visualize how to get back to their normal lives sooner, said Beatty.

But the government needs to work closely with businesses to make the reopening orderly, he said.

“The problem is that even if we get to Canada Day and see these restrictions are gone, we will have still lost the summer tourist season,” he said.

“What is critical is that they co-ordinate with business.”

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Jackson Proskow

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