The United States reopened its land border to Canadians who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on Monday, but travellers will still have to show a negative PCR test on their way back into Canada, and there’s no clear indication of when that might change.
Right now, any traveller trying to enter Canada must provide a negative PCR test taken at their own expense, and taken no more than 72 hours before their arrival at the border.
The government told Global News it is looking “quite carefully” at the necessity of these tests, but it has no plans to immediately drop the requirement — despite calls from both border town mayors and industry representatives to do just that.
“We are looking at these requirements quite carefully. As the COVID situation remains volatile, officials and experts will continue to evaluate the measures in place, and make necessary adjustments as required,” said Andrew MacKendrick, a spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, in a statement emailed to Global News on Monday.
His statement came just hours after the mayors from border cities like Windsor and Niagara Falls called on the Canadian government to ditch the pricey PCR test obligation as soon as possible.
“When you tell a family, ‘it’s going to cost you another $1,000 to visit … and you won’t have any more to eat or a nicer place to stay,’ they choose not to,” said Jim Diodati, who is the mayor of Niagara Falls.
“They’re a lot like water. They take the path of least resistance.”
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens echoed Diodati’s concerns. He said that while there’s now a “pathway” for families to reunite on either side of the border, it’s been “dampened” by the “unreasonable and costly” tests that sometimes cost as much as $200.
“This PCR test requirement is a hard stop barrier for families to reunite, except for the wealthiest of Canadians,” Dilkens said.
“And that is unfair.”
Dilkens added that the testing requirement has “nothing to do with the science,” particularly given that the test can be taken up to 72 hours before arriving at the border.
“One of the biggest football events locally is the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game. Thousands of Canadians cross into Detroit every year to watch this game and participate in pre and post-game activities,” Dilkens said.
“The current system would allow someone to take a PCR test in Canada, cross into Detroit to cheer on the Lions with 65,000 other fans in the stadium, and then return to Canada using the test they took before leaving.”
Still, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has defended the ongoing requirement.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, she said officials are examining “epidemiologic factors” between Canada and the U.S. as they weigh whether the testing system should remain in place.
“Things could shift pretty quickly in the winter months. We wanted to take a cautious, phased approach and have been doing so for our border measures,” Tam said.
“We will be examining those policies.”
There are legitimate tensions at play when it comes to that examination, according to Dr. Barry Pakes, who is an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of medicine.
“If the idea is to really prevent people with COVID coming in, whether they’re vaccinated or not, then a PCR test is definitely the way to go,” Pakes said.
The PCR test is “far more accurate” than a rapid test, and that it provides “a level of standardization and of accountability,” he said.
But, “if the government’s goal is to facilitate travel or enable travel and vacations over the upcoming holidays, then it makes sense to get rid of that (requirement),” Pakes added.
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“I think that’s the tension that the government needs to address right now.”
There are a number of considerations at play, according to Pakes.
“There is a substantial number of Americans who are unvaccinated. There are variable rules regarding masks and other public health measures, and so it’s not unreasonable to think that even vaccinated people who travel to the U.S. may come back with COVID,” he said.
“It’s going to be a fairly small number and it’s not unlikely that they may pass it on, here and there, when they come back.”
But it’s “difficult” to know whether the people with cases who would cross into Canada pose a “significant risk,” Pakes added.
“We are very well vaccinated. Almost nine in 10 Ontarians at least have at least one dose,” he said, but “there are 10 per cent who don’t.”
There is still an opportunity for “significant spread” among Canada’s unvaccinated population, according to Pakes — and that includes kids under the age of 12, who haven’t yet been approved for the shot.
Ultimately, Pakes said he believes the government is making the right call by keeping the testing requirement in place.
“I hope they keep (the testing requirement) in place, as difficult as it is for people,” he said.
“As we’ve seen, when we make the easier choice, or the ‘opening’ choice, sometimes we do pay for it in the end — and not that far in the future.”