WASHINGTON – The top U.S. diplomat in Canada on Friday offered a modest glimmer of hope to those who want to see the border between the two countries fully opened sometime soon despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
"I think we're in a good place," said Arnold Chacon, interim chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa. "We continue to review our travel restrictions, and any decision about reopening travel is going to be guided by our public health and medical experts. We take this very, very seriously. But I think we're in a good place and the trajectory is very promising."
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, called the move "unacceptable." Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, lamented "the Biden administration's complete failure on this issue."
Chacon did not elaborate on when the "promising" situation would allow the U.S. to fully open its border. He made those comments in an online discussion sponsored by the Wilson Center's Canada Institute.
Joining Chacon at the event was Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the United States – who, like Chacon, avoided making a diplomatic issue out of the fact that the two nation's border policies diverged this week.
"There's been an enormous amount of information-sharing and coordination and there continues to be, but coordination doesn't mean you're going to do exactly the same thing," Hillman said.
The Department of Homeland Security filed the Federal Register notice Wednesday, calling the extension of the border closure a public health decision.
Chacon and Hillman met in the online forum four days after Canada announced that it will begin admitting vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9, and two days after the Biden administration announced it will continue to bar nonessential travel over the Canadian border through Aug. 21.
The U.S. decision to keep the border largely closed has produced a huge amount of criticism in both countries, but both diplomats were actually full of praise for how the border closure has been handled so far.
"The consultation and the coordination is ongoing, so it will continue, and it of course resulted in a major achievement of us actually keeping our border open to essential travel and trade and the like," Chacon said.
"The collaboration and information-sharing and the effort to problem-solve together has been stellar under this administration and, credit where credit is due, since the outset of this pandemic," she said.
Travelers heading north to Canada on Aug. 9 or soon thereafter may think the Peace Bridge and other border crossings look like one-way streets.
The two nations agreed to close the border to nonessential travel March 21, 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. That closure was renewed monthly by both countries until this week, when Canada set an opening date and the U.S. did not.
Hillman stressed, though, that while the two nations have consulted with each other on border policy since the start of the pandemic, that does not mean they have acted in unison. There have been differences in border policy from the start, she said, noting that while the U.S. has continually allowed Canadians to fly to the U.S. throughout the pandemic, Canada has not allowed American citizens to fly into the country for nonessential travel.
While diplomats from the two nations discuss the border closure regularly, "we both are also committed to making decisions based on science and the advice of experts, and those are our experts, our science – our experts in our country, what is happening for us on the ground – and the U.S. is doing the same," Hillman said. "It's making decisions based on their situation on the ground."
The short drive to southern Ontario could turn out to be both complicated and expensive.
Canada's Covid-19 infection rate has been falling as it has fully vaccinated the majority of its eligible citizens in recent weeks. Meanwhile, infections are spiking again in the U.S. thanks to the fast-spreading delta variant and the nation's lagging vaccination rate.
Canada and the U.S. have gone in different directions, too, in terms of how much detail they reveal about their changes in border policy. Canadian officials have held frequent public briefings where they have detailed and defended the decisions they've made regarding the border during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has largely limited its comments about the border to dry statements in the Federal Register and occasional tweets that reveal little detail.
Friday's Wilson Center session was no different. The Canadian ambassador spent more than three minutes discussing the border, while the U.S. diplomat spoke on the issue for less than a minute.
The two diplomats spent most of the hour-long session discussing the "Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership" that President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled earlier this year. The roadmap dwells on issues such as climate change, defense and security, as well as recovering from the pandemic.