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Border shutdown to be extended again, but with hope of reopening soon

Border shutdown to be extended again, but with hope of reopening soon

  • Updated
Peace Bridge

Sunset behind the Peace Bridge, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. 

WASHINGTON – U.S. and Canadian officials plan to extend the shutdown of the land border between the two countries for another month to June 21, two sources with knowledge of the talks told The Buffalo News Tuesday.

But the new agreement could broaden the categories of people who are allowed to cross the border – and Canadian officials indicated that increasing vaccination rates offer hope of a broader reopening before long.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he expects at least 75% of Canadians to receive their first shot of a coronavirus vaccine before the border reopens. And Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, indicated the nation could cross that threshold soon.

"I think we are looking at that 50% mark (in vaccinations), and then it's eminently possible that in the next week, we're going to get to that 75%," with 20% of the Canadian population fully immunized, Tam said.

Amid the pandemic, the U.S.-Canadian border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 21, 2020. The two nations have extended that shutdown on a monthly basis ever since, and the latest extension is scheduled to expire on Friday.

According to sources familiar with discussions between the two countries, there is the potential for some changes in the next – and possibly last – monthlong extension of the shutdown. Most notably, the two countries could broaden the categories of people eligible to cross the border, perhaps making it easier for vaccinated people to visit their loved ones or for vaccinated people to visit properties they own on the other side of the border.

The eventual agreement to fully reopen the border is likely to require all travelers to provide proof of vaccination, the sources said.

Still, word of another monthlong extension of the shutdown upset American politicians pushing for a broader and quicker reopening.

"It's deeply disappointing, particularly without any vision – you know, a plan to open the border," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, agreed.

“I echo the confusion and frustration of thousands of New Yorkers who have a stake in safely and steadily reopening the northern border,” Schumer said. “All of these extensions have been agreed upon behind closed doors with no public input or established criteria. It’s long past time for a binational agreement on criteria, and there is no reason fully vaccinated people shouldn’t be able to cross the border in either direction.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with managing the border, posted news of another one-month extension on its website late Monday only to delete it on Tuesday. Agency officials did not respond to a request for an explanation as to why the notice was deleted.

Devon Weber – the founder of Let Us Reunite, which is pushing for a loosening of border restrictions – captured a screenshot of the CBP announcement before it was deleted.

"I have no hope for anything" from the two countries that would ease the border restrictions, Weber said.

Nevertheless, Canadian officials provided reason for optimism about the eventual end of the border shutdown.

"We're all eager to get back to normal, but we know that before we get back to normal, cases need to be under control and over 75% of people need to be vaccinated for us to start loosening things in Canada," Trudeau said. "We'll see what framework we apply to ensure that we're keeping Canadians safe, even as we look to eventually change the restrictions and the posture at the border."

Trudeau also stressed that Canada's vaccination rate – which has long lagged the U.S. in terms of vaccinations because of its lack of vaccine manufacturing facilities – is increasing rapidly. As of Monday, 47.2% of the American public had at least one shot, which is only 1 percentage point more than the Canadian percentage.

Thanks to increased vaccine shipments, Canada's vaccination rate has led the Group of 20 nations for the past two weeks, Trudeau said.

And that, the prime minister added, could help Canada get to the threshold it set for loosening Covid-19 restrictions and opening the border.

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