Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to close at 12:01 a.m. Saturday to nonessential travelers

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Detroit — Officials with the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel announced Thursday evening that the tunnel will close to non-essential cars and trucks at 12:01 a.m. Saturday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement comes after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier Thursday the closure of the U.S.-Canadian border to nonessential traffic would take effect late Friday or early Saturday.

The tunnel and Ambassador Bridge remained open as of Thursday, as well as the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie.

"We are continuing to work on the fine-tuning of the agreement between Canada and the United States. I think it's almost there," Trudeau said Thursday at a news conference. 

Vehicles are seen traveling from the American side of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit to the Canadian side in Windsor, Ontario, Thursday.

"My understanding is that the measures will probably come into place in the night between Friday and Saturday. So in about a day and a half." 

Jocelyn Hall, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said there were no immediate plans to close the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie.

"At this time we do not know of any intentions to close the (bridges) entirely," she said. "We expect that border patrol agencies will be made aware of any additional restrictions being placed on bridge traffic in the near future, but at this time our priority is continuing to support toll operations and providing safe crossings for essential passenger travel and commercial traffic.

Trudeau and President Donald Trump announced Wednesday the two countries were moving to temporarily restrict travel across their shared border to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Officials have said that trade, supply chains and people who cross the boundary for work won't be affected, but it's not yet known how long the restrictions will last, which personnel will be deemed "essential" or what kind of documentation workers will need to cross.

Health care workers are among those expected to be considered essential workers. Roughly 2,600 Canadian nurses are licensed to work in Michigan, according to the Michigan Nurses Association. 

Trump said Wednesday he expected the closure to last 30 days. "Hopefully at the end of 30 days, we'll be in great shape," he said. 

Trump said there was no "tipping point" that necessitated closure, but "we want to isolate from the standpoint we don't want people coming into contact."

The crossing between Detroit and Windsor is the busiest along the U.S.-Canada border via the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, followed by the Blue Water Bridge.

Completely closing the border would do severe economic harm to both nations. Canada relies on the United States for 75% of its exports. Much of Canada’s food supply comes from or through the states, and 98% of its oil exports go to the United States. 

Michigan lawmakers have urged the Trump administration to ensure that hundreds of essential workers including health care professionals, first responders, and agriculture and manufacturing workers be allowed to efficiently cross the border. 

It's estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 Canadians work in the states with non-immigrant work visas.

The Henry Ford Health System has 950 Canadian employees, including 500 nurses who cross the border for work, Patrick Irwin, the system's vice president of human resources, said Wednesday.

"We feel very confident based on the work of the Michigan congressional delegation and governor’s office that the right conversations have been had with our Canadian counterparts to make sure we don’t lose these valued health care workers," Irwin said. 

"It’s in the interest of the U.S. and Canadian government to ensure people are safe and healthy. We are in absolute support of that. The processes by which the border professionals on each side of our borders pursue that — that still has to be shared with us," he added. 

The new procedures for crossing to be worked out include whether employees will travel in their own vehicles, in a designated vehicle such as a shuttle, and whether and how any COVID-19 screenings will be conducted before crossing, Irwin said. 

Trudeau on Monday announced he was closing the country’s borders to anyone not a citizen, an American or a permanent resident. Those excepted groups have to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival due to the pandemic.

However, essential workers who cross the border regularly for work are exempt from the self-quarantine requirement.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed