Communities say possible Canada-U.S. border reopening 'overdue,' but experts cautious

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Several leaders whose communities have large ties to the opposite side of the Canada-U.S. border say the potential lift on non-essential travel over the next few months is long overdue, though health experts are still voicing caution.

Non-essential travel from the U.S. could potentially start by mid-August for fully-vaccinated travellers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the country’s premiers Thursday night. Should COVID-19 vaccination rates in Canada continue to remain high and hit certain thresholds, Trudeau said that fully-vaccinated travellers from other countries could begin to come into the country by September.

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While the announcement isn’t a confirmation yet of the border’s reopening, the deadline on restricted Canada-U.S. border travel could be extended for the last and final time after they’re set to expire on July 21.

Trudeau’s comments came as anticipation built over whether the federal government would extend that deadline July 21 deadline by another 30 days — or lift it entirely.

Kelley Lee, a global infectious disease governance expert and professor at Simon Fraser University, told Global News that she was relieved that the date was possibly going to be extended for at least another month.

While her anxiety has been lifted on whether communities near Canadian borders could possibly see a sudden influx of travelers by next week — and with it possible new outbreaks of COVID-19 — Lee said that she was hoping for that deadline to be extended even further, at least until September.

“We’re not trying to shut the border; we’re not trying to keep them out,” she said.

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“The issue is that we’re not quite at the level of full vaccination as U.S. is, and then both countries need to get a higher level of vaccination.”

Lee also pointed to the renewed spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., which has mostly been among its unvaccinated population, as well as the current lack of a standardized vaccine passport for both countries.

Currently about 55 per cent of Canada’s eligible population, which excludes children under the age of 12, have been fully vaccinated so far according to COVID-19tracker.ca.

The U.S., on the other hand, has administered one dose to 65 per cent of their eligible population, while 56 per cent have received two shots. Public health experts have also pointed to the slowing vaccination rate in the country — especially in pockets or communities that are vaccine-hesitant.

For some Canadians whose businesses or communities have heavily relied on tourism or on their neighbours across the border, the prime minister’s comments — as included in a readout of the First Minister’s call Thursday — were much needed.

Windsor, Ont., mayor Drew Dilkens told Global News in an interview Friday that the news was “long overdue” and the sooner they can open the border for fully-vaccinated travellers, the better it would for both sides.

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“I think the fact that the borders continue to be closed certainly has a disproportionate effect on families who live in border communities like mine,” Dilkens said.

Though the news of a potential border reopening just around the corner was welcomed by Dilkens, he said that what’s needed now is a concrete timeline on when it would be reopened and what the rules would look like.

Dilkens was in agreement that the next “logical step” would be to only allow border crossings for travelers who were fully vaccinated, though he said that over time as vaccination numbers increase, more and more restrictions should be removed to allow businesses to thrive and families to reunite.

“Living here in Windsor, home to the busiest border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, it has a huge effect,” said Dilkens of the current non-essential border restrictions.

From a business perspective, he said that supply chains on both sides of the border were tightly integrated, but from a “human perspective,” the border closure has had a huge impact on families on both sides over the last 16 months.

The mayor of Niagara, Ont., another busy border crossing in Canada, told Global News on Friday that the whole process has been very frustrating due to a lack of communication on a reopening plan.

“When businesses need to hire employees, bring in inventory — you need to know the plan and then people can be prepared, because its not as easy as flipping a light switch,” Jim Diodati said on the Scott Thompson Show Friday.

He said that he and other border mayors were scheduled to have a meeting with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on Monday, and that such a plan was still being vetted, but that Canadians would likely have more details by next week.

Lee, who has been working alongside an international team of researchers studying cross-border measures during the pandemic, said that she would very much like to see the implementation of three specific restrictions to safely ease the country’s border reopening.

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The first would be to require any exempt or essential travellers to be vaccinated and tested, the second would be to test all fully-vaccinated travellers up to two times after their arrival in Canada and lastly to implement a robust and fast form of contact tracing of new breakthrough infections.

Those “solutions,” which were included in an open letter to the federal government and signed by a handful of prominent public health professionals, would help buffer against new outbreaks — especially against variants — and ease travel restrictions back to normal according to her.

“So it’s a matter of time and I think it’s up to Americans to get themselves vaccinated,” Lee said.

“We’d love to see Americans again.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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