WASHINGTON – Warming U.S.-Canada relations are expected to be on the agenda Tuesday as President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meet in a virtual summit – but the newfound warmth doesn't mean it will be any easier for most people to cross the border anytime soon.
The two nations announced last week that the border will remain closed for another month, through March 21 – the one-year anniversary of the pandemic-inspired border shutdown. What's more, Canada on Monday imposed new, more stringent entry requirements for the relatively few people allowed to enter Canada.
In other words, nothing has happened so far in the wake of Biden's Jan. 21 executive order calling for diplomatic outreach to Canada to develop a new border plan amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Advocates of a more open border had hoped that the executive order would prompt movement toward a phased reopening – and sources said it is possible that some sort of announcement about next steps regarding the border will come this week. But given Canada's recent moves to tighten the border, there is no sign of a quick move to a full border reopening.
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, a senior Biden administration official offered no details about how and when the border will reopen, but said the U.S. and Canada will work together on the issue.
For Western New Yorkers who have owned second homes in Canada for years, if not generations, the border shutdown still breeds uncertainty.
"Those decisions are significant, and it's in our interest to make sure that we're collaborating, coordinating," said the official, who asked not to be identified by name.
The senior administration official also said that there will be announcements pertaining to Canada on several issues over the next few days.
"We have an entire week's worth of Canada planned out for you," the Biden administration official said. "We're going to have announcements that are going to come out from the Department of State, the Department of Transportation and others on follow-on actions that are going to take place."
Biden's executive order called for diplomatic consultations with Canada and Mexico and development of a new border plan by Feb. 4. But Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said: "The process has been delayed."
Higgins said that Canada's lingering concerns about the pandemic remained an issue in a conversation he had Saturday with Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer.
"I remember those first weeks thinking: OK, well, we'll just give it a couple of weeks, and it's going to be OK; this can't last that long," Elizabeth Switzer said. "And then it just kept going and going and going."
When Higgins suggested broadening the border limits to allow for more family reunification and property visits, Finer "pushed back a little bit," noting that the Canadians were implementing stricter border crossing requirements, Higgins said.
Nevertheless, the founder of Let Us Reunite – which represents thousands of people with loved ones stuck on the other side of the border – said her conversations with government officials left her optimistic about the summit.
"At least some part of the plan to reopen the border should be coming out in the next few days, and so we're hopeful that family travel exemptions will be included in that," said Devon Weber, Let Us Reunite's founder.
Canada has a broader family travel exemption than the U.S. does, so Weber said she hopes that the U.S. at least matches the Canadian family reunification plan.
Rep. Chris Jacobs is hoping for even more out of the summit. Noting that Biden's executive action called for quick action on the border, Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, said: "I urge the administration to uphold that commitment and work with Prime Minister Trudeau on a plan to reopen the border. Western New York families, small businesses and property owners are relying upon it."
Lately, though, Canada has been tightening its border restrictions.
In addition to extending the border shutdown by at least a month, Canada implemented new rules on Monday that require people who fly into Canada to pay for their own Covid-19 test, as well as a three-day hotel stay at the start of their 14-day quarantine. People who cross the land borders – such as Americans taking advantage of Canada's somewhat looser rules for visiting loved ones across the border – will have to take a Covid-19 test both at the start and at the end of their 14-day quarantine period.
"We’re continuing to take strong action at our borders to keep Canadians safe from emerging new variants of #COVID19," Bill Blair, Canada's minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, said on Twitter on Monday.
Biden and Trudeau have plenty to discuss beyond the border. Trudeau had a famously rocky relationship with Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum as part of his trade agenda. So Higgins said Biden has a repair job on his hands.
"I don't think people realize the damage that has been done to the U.S.-Canadian relationship over the past four years and, in particular, the last 12 months," Higgins said. "So this is part of a rebuilding process in terms of the binational relationship between the United States and Canada."
Announcing Biden's meeting with Trudeau – Biden's first get-together with a foreign leader – the White House said: "The meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to review joint efforts in areas of mutual interest such as the Covid-19 response, climate change and the economic ties that bind our countries, as well as the deep people-to-people bonds we share.”
Meanwhile, Trudeau said in a statement: "I look forward to my meeting with President Biden, where we will work together to end the Covid-19 pandemic and support people in both our countries.”