OTTAWA — The U.S.-Canada border will stay closed to nonessential American travelers until at least early July, a senior Canadian official tells POLITICO.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government first priority is on loosening border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents returning from abroad, said the insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Border backdrop: Details on the border timeline are emerging as vaccination rates rise and Trudeau and President Joe Biden face growing pressure to start lifting restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers.
Canada-U.S. land crossings were shuttered March 2020 to nonessential travel in an effort to slow Covid-19’s spread.
“We’re very much engaged on this,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Senate committee this week when pressed on how long he anticipated the border to Canada would remain closed to nonessential U.S. travelers. “I’ve had multiple conversations with my Canadian counterpart on this. We understand, in particular, our fellow citizens who live in border states the difficulties, challenges that this has presented.”
Biden-Trudeau face to face: The border talk will get another boost at the G-7 this week where Canadian officials say Trudeau and Biden are expected to discuss the issue.
“They’ll look at what makes sense for each country,” another senior Canadian official told POLITICO earlier this week about the anticipated conversation. “There’s already very active discussions going on on each side of the border and there’s a commitment in the roadmap to be coordinated about the border. All that stuff is moving pretty quickly, frankly.”
Since the border measures were first imposed, the countries have been renewing a bilateral, month-to-month arrangement to keep them in place. The next agreement expires June 21.
The pressure: Lawmakers like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) have urged the Biden administration to start unilaterally lifting border restrictions if it can’t secure a reopening deal with Canada by June 21.
There have been no signs either government would be willing to go it alone.
Biden and Trudeau released a bilateral “roadmap” in February that, among its dozens of commitments, pledged the two leaders “agreed to take a coordinated approach based on science and public health criteria when considering measures to ease Canada-U.S. border restrictions in the future.”
The public health restrictions have had economic and social consequences. The shutdowns have hurt struggling tourism industries along the frontier and loved ones who have been separated for more than a year.
On Monday, the mayors of two Canadian border cities told POLITICO that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair signaled the Trudeau government could start easing border restrictions on June 22 if the country’s vaccination campaign stays on its current trajectory.
Canada’s step-by-step approach: Earlier Wednesday, Canada announced that it is working on a system to lift the 14-day quarantine requirement, which includes a mandated hotel stay, for its returning residents and other authorized travelers.
“The general ballpark is the first week in July,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters, a date designed to leave time for talks with the provinces and for federal authorities to prepare.
When asked about timelines for tourists and business people, Hajdu said the Trudeau government is looking at metrics that are “less data-oriented and more disease-activity oriented.”
“It really is about making sure we can see that trajectory of less people getting sick, less hospitalizations, more capacity in provinces and territories to handle any outbreaks and a confidence that the vaccination coverage here in Canada is going well,” she said.
The ‘goal posts’: Trudeau has said that before the country begins to ease public health restrictions — including those at the border — at least 75 percent of Canada’s population should have their first Covid vaccine doses and 20 percent should be fully vaccinated.
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam told the same press conference Canada is on track to reach the 75-20 target by the first week of July. Tam added it’s unclear when the country will reach its second “goal post” of having 75 percent of its population fully vaccinated.
Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said that when it comes to decisions around easing restrictions authorities are not only watching vaccine coverage. He said officials are watching elements like variants, community transmission and the burden on the health care system.
“That’s why we keep saying that you can’t let go of the public health measures, both at an individual level as well as at a population level as the vaccine rollout continues to unfold throughout the country.”
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