By James McCarten, The Canadian Press
WASHINGTON — Canadian snowbirds will be watching closely this week, suitcases at the ready and RVs full of fuel, to see if the United States finally eases the travel restrictions preventing them from driving south for the winter.
Some aren’t waiting for the White House, opting for the perfectly legal option of flying to the U.S. instead — and many are planning on getting a COVID-19 booster shot as soon as they get there, said Toronto travel insurance broker Martin Firestone.
“The feeling I’m getting from my clientele is, ‘I will go down south as I always had planned to, but I will get my third booster shot down there and probably get it a lot quicker than I ever would waiting here,'” Firestone said in an interview.
“People who are heading south are going to go get that booster down in the States, I can assure you of that.”
On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration turned a few heads when it rejected the idea of a third shot for Americans aged 16 or older. The agency did, however, endorse a plan to make boosters available to people aged 65 or older, or at high risk of severe illness.
With Canada still a long way from formally deciding whether to offer boosters, many with U.S. travel plans simply don’t want to wait for the federal health authorities and the individual provinces to make up their minds, Firestone said.
Others are waiting for the U.S. to give a green light to getting behind the wheel.
Tuesday is the deadline for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to declare whether it plans to ease the restrictions on non-essential travel over the Canada-U.S. land border, or extend the prohibition for another 30 days.
The U.S. has largely remained silent on when it might begin to ease the restrictions. Air and sea travellers are exempt from the ban, though passengers by rail, ferry and pleasure boat are not.
A fresh batch of U.S. Senate Democrats, including Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand of New York and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, wrote Friday to urge President Joe Biden to finally lift the ban.
“We believe that fully vaccinated Canadians should be allowed to safely travel into the United States via land ports of entry,” reads the letter, which was also signed by New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Angus King, the Independent from Maine.
“We urge you to lift these restrictions before October, provide a plan for reopening land ports of entry and appoint an interagency lead on U.S.-Canadian border restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Establishing a liaison between the various agencies, the White House and Congress would help to ensure the issue gets the necessary attention and ensure lawmakers are kept in the loop, it continues.
“An interagency lead would facilitate discussions between the administration and our offices and ensure that we are able to effectively convey the concerns of our constituents as you evaluate the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas, whose department oversees the U.S. border agency, acknowledged the growing frustration during a National Press Club event last week in Washington.
“We had hoped that by now, we would have opened up travel through the ports of entry, but regrettably, because of the Delta variant, we’ve been delayed in doing so,” Mayorkas said.
The restrictions now include language that make it possible to relax or lift the ban entirely before the start of the next 30-day window, he added.
“Because we’ve renewed it for 30 days does not necessarily mean that the restriction will last for another 30 days,” Mayorkas said. “We have the ability, of course, to ease it or to eliminate it sooner if the data suggests that we should.”
He also acknowledged the southern border, scene of an escalating immigration crisis, is complicating matters. The department sent 400 more border agents and officers to the south Texas region where upwards of 14,000 migrants from Haiti have gathered, with more arriving daily, in hopes of winning asylum in the U.S.
Some experts say the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is making the White House wary about easing travel restrictions, particularly when travel from Canada is still possible via air and trade and commercial shipments have been moving largely unfettered since the start of the pandemic.
But there are families at the southern border who are suffering under the restrictions as well, said Devon Weber, the founder of Let Us Reunite, a grassroots advocacy group that’s pushing for the borders to be reopened.
“We cannot let migrants be used as a scapegoat for the government’s bureaucratic paralysis regarding land border policy,” Weber said in an email.
“There is a difference between immigration and opening the border to casual travel. The United States had 18 months to make a plan to safely reopen all the land borders and has chosen not to.”
Firestone said older travellers want a vehicle at their disposal while in the U.S., and prefer to avoid the hassle of air travel, particularly since Canada’s decision to allow fully vaccinated visitors has dramatically slowed what was already a plodding and delay-filled customs clearance process.
“We’re hearing stories about three-hour waits on the plane on the tarmac, and then another two-hour wait in the building,” he said. “Flying is not what it used to be.”
Some want to take their RVs, which provide both transportation and accommodation. A shortage of available rental cars across North America has put a further premium on being able to take one’s own car. And the cost of shipping a vehicle separately remains prohibitive.
Firestone said if the border reopens soon, he’s anticipating demand for travel insurance to reach upwards of 90 per cent of what it was in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Without the land border being reopened, he said, that figure will be closer to 50 per cent.
“Another 30 days until Oct. 21 is really going to put a dent in the flow of traffic to the U.S., and it won’t be good on many fronts,” he said. “The bottom line is there should be no reason why the U.S. does not open the land border, in my opinion. And that’s basically because there is zero risk.”