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Pressure mounts to ease U.S.-Canadian border restrictions

WASHINGTON — Pressure to reopen the U.S.-Canadian border increased late this week, as Rep. Brian Higgins suggested loosening current restrictions slightly and a group of cross-border business interests laid out detailed principals for how the reopening should proceed.

Higgins on Friday sent a letter to the acting secretary of homeland security and to Canada's minister of public safety and emergency preparedness. And in it, Higgins asked them to loosen the current restrictions so that people could cross the border to visit family, tend to personal business and inspect, secure or manage personal property.

"Protecting public health is the utmost priority, so we must begin to carefully plan for border restrictions to be relaxed in a measured and balanced way to permit legitimate travel," Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said.

The United States and Canada agreed in mid-March to close the border to all but essential business traffic to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And just last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the closing had been extended to June 21.

Asked in an interview whether his suggested easing of the travel restrictions would cover Buffalo-area residents visiting their summer cottages in Canada, Higgins said yes.

"If you go out there to check on your home, it seems to me that you could extend that stay," he said. "There are a lot of Western New Yorkers, a lot of constituents of mine that have properties over in Canada, be they second homes or cottages, and who, since the travel ban started, have been asking for consideration to check on their properties, to take care of the properties, to do whatever it is they do there."

Meanwhile, a group of 15 agencies from both sides of the border — including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Peace Bridge Authority and Visit Niagara Canada — spelled out a set of principles for reopening the border.

"We thought it was an important exercise to provide 'feet on the ground' insights into border re-opening as policies are being developed, rather than waiting for a plan to be handed down, then react," said Craig W. Turner, president of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.

The group, called the Binational Prosperity Initiative, made the following recommendations to policymakers:

• Designing a regional approach to reopening the border, rather than implementing a "one size fits all" reopening plan for the entire 5,500-mile U.S.-Canadian border.

• Utilizing the binational Regulatory Cooperation Council to streamline regulations for medical supplies and other critical products crossing the border.

• Implementing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on schedule July 1, while making sure that any "Buy American" legislation in the United States includes an exception for Canadian products and that any "Buy Canadian" legislation out of Ottawa includes an exception for American products.

• Improving technology used at border crossings and expanding the promotion of the NEXUS system as a "touchless" way of crossing the border.

• Providing U.S. and Canadian financial assistance to the Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission to help make up for the loss of toll revenue.

"The recommendations come from folks in the trenches and are grounded in practical doable policy," said Kathryn Friedman, a research associate professor of law and planning at the University at Buffalo who served as principal investigator for the Binational Prosperity Initiative. "Each would have a profound impact on the prosperity of our region. We urge officials, in the days and weeks ahead, to seriously consider these as viable options."

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