WASHINGTON – The day that many Buffalo-area residents have been waiting for – the day they can finally go to Canada again – now looks like it might be only about three weeks away.
But the short drive to southern Ontario could turn out to be both complicated and expensive.
While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Thursday that he expects the border to open to vaccinated travelers by mid-August, several knowledgeable sources on both sides of the border told The Buffalo News last week that they expect the opening to come with a caveat.
Returning Canadians now must have Covid tests both before and after they return to the country, and sources familiar with the border issue said they expect that requirement to be extended to Americans traveling to Canada as well. American visitors would have to quarantine for 14 days if their second test comes back positive.
That could add to the cost to any trip to Canada, which could discourage leisure travelers from making the trip.
Word of that possibility infuriated Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who raised his concerns about it last week with both Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"I mentioned the rumor to him and I said: "That would be ridiculous,' " Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in an interview after his conversation with Mayorkas but before his talk with Blinken.
Schumer said he feared the testing requirement would make traffic across the border "slow down to a snail's pace." But Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, raised a separate concern: that it would discourage Americans from heading north.
"It certainly does add complexity to travel, as well as an additional cost," Potter said.
Travelers are expected to pay for their own Covid tests upon arrival in Canada. And a Buffalo News search on Saturday showed the price of those tests in Ontario ranging from $59 to $158 in U.S. currency.
"It's a fairly hefty price tag, and if you're talking about a family of four, that adds up pretty quickly," Potter said.
Even so, several sources said they expect Canada to require visiting Americans to get tested because Canada is requiring that of its own citizens. On July 5, Canada waived a requirement that returning Canadians quarantine for two weeks, but the nation did not waive its requirement that returnees be tested twice even though they are vaccinated.
For Americans, the testing requirement would be so burdensome that it would likely mean that most day-trippers or vacationers would simply not bother to go to Canada, several people said.
Kenneth Bieger, CEO of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, said the testing requirement would, in effect, mean that only people with loved ones or property in Canada would be likely to make the trip.
How many Americans, then, would end up going to Canada if the border opened with testing requirements?
"I think it's going to be just a handful," Bieger said.
While the Peace Bridge might see a bigger increase in traffic because of the number of Buffalo-area residents who own summer cottages in Canada, "we're not going to get a lot" in Niagara Falls, Bieger added.
Concerned about the effect of the testing requirement, lawmakers that have been pushing for a border reopening are now pressing Trudeau to abandon the testing requirement.
“If the prime minister continues the testing requirement for vaccinated individuals, he is ignoring his own calls to follow the science," said Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican. "The vaccines are effective at preventing infection and transmission."
Rep. Brian Higgins, the Buffalo Democrat who has spearheaded the effort to reopen the border, agreed.
"I don't see why testing is required if you confirm that you've been vaccinated," he said.
Higgins also raised a concern that several sources mentioned: that despite calls for a coordinated plan to open the border – and a White House executive order from January to develop such a plan – there's no sign yet that such an effort is taking place.
That being the case, the opening of the border could turn out to be something of a makeshift affair, said Kathryn B. Friedman, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a member of the research faculty at the University at Buffalo.
"What we may see over the next couple of months on both the Canada and the U.S. side are these small incremental steps to open the border to the extent practicable," said Friedman, who called for a comprehensive reopening plan more than a year ago.
Meanwhile, with the highly infections Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus taking hold in parts of America with low vaccination rates, "you know, it could be two steps forward, one step back, until until we can kind of figure out this new norm that we're at," Friedman said.
The border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 21, 2020, early in the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials from the two nations have long indicated that they want to open the border together.
However, Canada has been far more open than the Biden administration in discussing its border plans, so it's unclear whether the U.S. will welcome Canadians in mid-August.
"I'm very curious what you guys are doing on your side of the border and how that's going to work," said Nick Dubanow, a Fort Erie town councillor. "That's kind of what we're thinking about here, because for the families on this side who have to drive to Toronto, then fly to Detroit and then fly back to Buffalo, it's been insanity."
The border closure has been painful, too, for Elizabeth Switzer of North Tonawanda. Her fiance is based in Hamilton, and because of the border closure, the couple has been forced to postpone their wedding twice, to September 2022.
"This isn't just about Paul and I reuniting – it's about our families, too," she said. "And even more importantly for me, it's about my fiance being able to see my dad again before Alzheimer's ruins that for us."
Switzer and her fiance, Paul Polak, will reunite briefly in August. Switzer, a teacher, has a two-week break between summer school and the start of the fall semester, and she's hoping to spend it in Canada. So she's already concerned that she will have to take those two Covid tests.
"It's just never-ending complication," she said.