By James McCarten, The Canadian Press
WASHINGTON — Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents will be allowed into Canada as of Aug. 9, joined by the rest of the world Sept. 7, federal officials announced Monday as the country prepares to lower border barriers that were erected to limit the spread of COVID-19.
However, the United States is not currently planning to reciprocate by easing travel restrictions on would-be Canadian visitors hoping to go south of the border.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he briefed Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas about the steps Canada intended to take, but got no indication that the U.S. would be following suit before the existing restrictions are set for renewal on Wednesday.
“He indicated to me at this time they have not yet made a decision; they anticipate their measures would likely be (extended) on July 21,” Blair told a news conference announcing the changes.
“They are obviously considering additional measures and data, but at the present time they have not indicated any plan to make any changes in the current border restrictions that are in place.”
That imbalance is sure to aggravate domestic political tensions around the border issue in the U.S., where a growing chorus of congressional lawmakers have been pressing President Joe Biden and his officials to embrace their vaccination success to date and ease international travel restrictions.
Rep. Brian Higgins, the New York member of Congress who has spearheaded the American campaign, said as much in a statement Monday as he cheered the Canadian measures.
“It is extremely frustrating that the U.S. government has failed to reciprocate current family exemptions already allowed by the Canadian government and failed to show a lack of urgency to make any progress on this side of the border toward lifting restrictions,” Higgins said.
“The U.S. has neglected to give reopening the northern border the serious attention it deserves, and there is no excuse. Failure to co-ordinate this announcement in a binational way will only lead to confusion among travelers.”
Political observers in both countries have pointed to the onset of the Delta variant in the U.S., stubborn vaccination rates and the ever-present challenge of the U.S.-Mexico border as some of the factors at play in the apparent American reticence.
Not long after Canada’s plan was announced Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to play down any suggestion that the U.S. should feel obliged to follow suit.
“I wouldn’t look at it through a reciprocal intention,” Psaki told the daily briefing.
“We are continuing to review our travel restrictions; any decisions about reopening travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts. We take this incredibly seriously, but we look and are guided by our own medical experts.”
Canadian officials say the 14-day quarantine requirement will be waived beginning the second week of August for eligible travellers who are currently residing in the United States and have received a full course of a COVID-19 vaccine approved for use by Health Canada.
The move comes two weeks after the Canada Border Services Agency began waiving quarantine rules for fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and permanent residents — a move that prompted an unsurprising spike in the number of travellers seeking to enter the country.
But Canada is nowhere near being out of the woods just yet, said Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who seized on the chance to encourage more Canadians to get vaccinated.
“It has been nice to be able to see friends and family this summer, but we do see international evidence that the pandemic is not over,” Hajdu said.
“Thanks to the hard work of Canadians, things are much better here in Canada, and our progress has been hard won. It is very important, and we cannot risk it.”
Children under 12 who are accompanied by fully vaccinated and eligible family members will also be exempt from quarantine, provided they wear a mask in public places and avoid indoor group settings, such as classrooms and summer camp.
All travellers will still be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result and proof of vaccination prior to arrival by way of the ArriveCAN smartphone app or web portal, but post-travel test results will no longer be necessary for those who are fully vaccinated.
Canada Border Services Agency officials will also be randomly subjecting vaccinated travellers to a mandatory molecular test upon arrival.
As of Aug. 9, airports in Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton will also be added to the list of Canadian cities where international flights are permitted to land. Air travellers will no longer be required to spend the first three nights of their quarantine at a government-approved hotel.
A ban on flights from India, however — where the Delta variant of COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc for weeks — will remain in place until at least Aug. 21.
All travellers will still be required to provide a quarantine plan and be prepared to quarantine, in the event it turns out they do not meet the necessary requirements, the government added.
Reaction to the decision in Canada was a swift thumbs-up, particularly from business stakeholders, airport authorities and travel industry executives — provided the changes don’t result in logistical snafus and lengthy delays at border crossings.
“The establishment of clear guidelines and dates will instill confidence and enable individuals and businesses to make plans. It will also provide much-needed hope for Canada’s hard-hit travel, tourism and hospitality sectors,” said Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
Perrin Beatty, who heads up the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said it’s high time for Canada to modernize its border control measures with a secure, bilateral system of exchanging digital health credentials — particularly if delays result in fewer shorter incidental visits.
“We are concerned that the costly and cumbersome procedures that remain for fully vaccinated travellers will discourage short visits, including many business trips,” said Beatty, who flagged border congestion, unvaccinated minors and the eventual U.S. decision as outstanding issues.