WASHINGTON — The intertwined economies of Canada and the United States demand a more sophisticated solution to the threat of COVID-19 than a simple ban on non-essential travel, say business groups chafing at the prospect of another six weeks of border restrictions.
Land travel over the Canada-U.S. border has been limited to trade shipments and essential workers since mid-March, when the two countries negotiated a mutual ban on discretionary trips like vacations and shopping excursions — a ban that now appears poised to extend well into July.
But that “profoundly sad” ban has also made critical interactions like sales calls, site visits, in-person client meetings and networking all but impossible, said Garry Douglas, the CEO of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, based in the New York border community of Plattsburgh.
“It is increasingly tearing at a unique and special social fabric, and the longer it continues the more we will be at risk of having normalized the extremely abnormal,” Douglas said Friday.
As it stands, the travel ban is set to expire June 21. But media reports and rumblings from both the U.S. and Canadian camps suggest that while negotiations between the two countries are ongoing, another 30-day extension — aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 — is likely.
Douglas said he understands the reasons for the ban, but that the process now “seems driven by fear and feelings.” He said he wants to see details of a gradual reopening process based on facts and a commitment to normalizing border operations, “all in recognition that enormous economic and, most importantly, social damage is now being done.”
“The next anticipated extension cries out for more thought and context,” Douglas said, ”and clearer valuing of the enormous damage we both need to minimize and ultimately end.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik and Rep. Brian Higgins, two New York members of the U.S. House of Representatives and co-chairs of the Northern Border Caucus, wrote Friday to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair calling for “nuanced and particularized guidance” on how to resume normal travel.
“We are increasingly concerned about the impact a restricted border will have on our communities long-term,” they wrote. “There must be bi-national co-ordination to develop a plan to safely allow for reasonable travel taking into account public health considerations but acknowledging our unique interconnected economies.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, however, betrayed no indication Friday that Canada is contemplating any such thing.
The partial ban has been doubly effective, Freeland said — it has both permitted the movement of vital goods and essential services, preserving critical supply chains, while also keeping the risk of spreading COVID-19 between the two countries to a bare minimum.
“Of course, we understand that Canada is an open society. We’re an open country, we’re used to travelling freely, and that is a great thing about our country,” she said.
“All of us are really excited about the gradual reopening of our economy … but at the same time I think it’s very, very important for all of us to appreciate how serious this situation is, and for all of us to act prudently and carefully.”
Tourism groups in Canada, long dependent on U.S. dollars during the lucrative summer season, penned an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week saying with businesses and governments easing restrictions across North America, the time has come to begin doing the same with international travel.
“As we reopen, we are learning to live with the virus, not hide from it or each other,” reads the letter from the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable.
“Just like we are reopening the front doors of our homes and businesses, we need to reopen the doors of our provinces, territories — and our country.”
John LaFalce, a former New York congressman who now makes his home in Buffalo, is also growing frustrated with the restrictions. He’s one of many U.S. residents near the border who own cottages just on the other side in Fort Erie — a property he’s forbidden to visit, even though doing so wouldn’t require him to have contact with anyone else.
LaFalce said he suspects Donald Trump’s White House is in no rush to ease restrictions at either border because the pandemic is allowing the U.S. to prevent immigrants from entering the country from Mexico, a happy circumstance for a U.S. president who’s long made cracking down on immigration a cornerstone of his policy platform.
But nearly three months in, the limits on incidental, short-term travel over the border are taking a toll, he said.
“It’s having quite a harmful effect,” LaFalce said as he noted Trump’s impatience in getting his country’s economy back up to speed. Those who own property or pay taxes in both countries ought to be allowed to cross, provided they take the necessary precautions, he said.
“It would seem to me that if the president wants to reopen the United States, he ought to reopen at least with Canada, and Canada should be responsive — with appropriate restrictions.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press