WASHINGTON – The U.S. side of the Canadian border will open to vaccinated Canadians starting in early November, the Biden administration told senior members of Congress on Tuesday, signaling the end of a 19-month pandemic shutdown that separated families and shook U.S. businesses that counted on customers from north of the border.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced the planned reopening shortly after White House officials told reporters that details of the move will be officially announced Wednesday.
The U.S. land borders have been shut to nonessential travel from Canada since March 21, 2020 – even though Canada opened its border to vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9 of this year.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, members of our shared cross-border community have felt the pain and economic hardship of the land border closures," said Schumer, a New York Democrat. "That pain is about to end. Very soon, the link between New York and our northern neighbors will finally be re-established, reuniting families, bolstering businesses and ending a frustrating cycle of waiting for everyone involved.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said he received word of the pending reopening from Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
"It was a long time coming," said Higgins, who has relentlessly advocated the reopening for months. "It should have happened six months ago."
Rep. Brian Higgins described the efforts by Rep. Elise Stefanik and Sen. Steve Daines as "messaging bills" that stand no chance of passage because Congress has long left detailed border management issues to the presidential administration.
The Biden administration – the target of ire from cross-border families and angry ads aimed at forcing the reopening – spelled out the basics of the reopening on a conference call with reporters.
They said the first phase of the reopening will begin in early November, when fully vaccinated Canadians and Mexicans with proper travel documentation will be allowed to cross U.S. land borders for nonessential reasons, such as family visits and tourism. There will be no testing requirement for Canadians entering the U.S., even though Canada requires vaccinated Americans to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of their arrival in Canada.
The second phase of the reopening will begin in January 2022, when all travelers across U.S. land borders – even those who are traveling for essential reasons – will be required to be vaccinated. Currently, business travelers such as truck drivers can drive into the U.S. even if they are not vaccinated because they are considered essential travelers.
"This phased approach will provide ample time for essential travelers such as truckers and others to get vaccinated, enabling a smooth transition to this new system," a senior White House official said.
White House officials did not offer any detailed explanation for why the U.S. side of the land border remained closed for months after the Canadian government welcomed vaccinated Americans traveling for nonessential reasons to enter that country starting in August.
The border will open as soon as federal officials deem it safe, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
Instead, that senior White House official merely offered some empathy with cross-border families and businesses that have suffered through the prolonged shutdown.
"We understand how valuable across-border travel – travel from Canada and Mexico – is to the economic activity in border communities and to our broader economy," that official said. "And we also know how meaningful the ability to travel is to maintaining the personal ties between people living on either side of the northern and southern U.S. borders, who are often effectively members of one community, and we are pleased to be able to move forward with these strict protocols to ensure cross-border travel can occur in a safe and sustainable manner."
Both sides of the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel on March 21, 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And every month ever since, the closure was extended – often in a tweet or Federal Register notice that offered little explanation for the continued shutdown.
And despite the long delay in reopening the U.S. side of the border, both Schumer and Higgins were ecstatic about the move.
“Kudos to President Biden for doing the right thing and increasing cross-border travel between Canada and the U.S.,” Schumer said. “The high vaccination rates on each side of the border have opened the door of safe cross-border travel and will now safely increase the rebirth of the economic energy of Upstate New York.”
The news that the U.S. land border will remain largely closed to Canadians came the way it often does, via Twitter rather than in a human voice – but it prompted angry and anguished cries all across the border.
"This should have been done a lot sooner," Higgins said, "but it's a very positive sign relative to the economics, relative to life quality, relative to uniting loved ones who have been separated for 19 months."
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, also a New York Democrat who has been pushing for the border reopening, said she was pleased with the move, too.
“The northern border is an indispensable economic partnership and ties our two nations together and I have repeatedly urged the Biden administration to enact this common sense policy now that 78% of Canadians over the age of 12 are vaccinated," Gillibrand said. "This reopening will be welcome news to countless businesses, medical providers, families and loved ones that depend on travel across the northern border.”
Canadian officials have set forth a complicated set of requirements that visitors must comply with, lest they want to have to make a U-turn on the Peace Bridge.
Gov. Kathy Hochul also applauded the news late Tuesday.
"Canada is not only our trade partner, but more importantly, Canadians are our neighbors and our friends," Hochul said in a statement. "From Western New York to the North Country, I look forward to welcoming our Canadian neighbors back to New York as we continue to rebuild and recover from this pandemic."