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Medical, health workers exempt from U.S.-Canada border restrictions

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — An agreement between Canada and the United States to temporarily limit nonessential traffic at the border will exclude travel for work, medical purposes, emergency response, public health services and for trade, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Friday. 

The restrictions on nonessential traffic aim to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 across both the Northern and Southern borders. They go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday, officials said. 

"Let me be clear that neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commercial activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders," Wolf said Friday at the White House. 

Trucks make their way across the Ambassador Bridge toward Detroit in this March 16, 2020, file photo.

"A few examples that was essential travel include but certainly are not limited to individuals traveling for medical purposes, to attend educational institutions, for emergency response, public health services and individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade." 

Guidance from the Department of Homeland Security issued Friday said nonessential travel is defined as travel for tourism or recreational purposes.

Trucking to support supply chains to ensure food, fuel, medicine and other crucial materials also will not be affected, according to the department. 

The definition of essential travel includes U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning to the states, as well as individuals traveling to work in the states, those who are diplomats or members of the U.S. military, according to regulations set to be published in the Federal Register.  

The Michigan Health & Hospital Association and Michigan lawmakers had been pressing the Trump administration to ensure health care workers would qualify as essential individuals under the new travel restrictions, and they will be able to cross the border efficiently.

Roughly 2,600 Canadian nurses are licensed to work in Michigan, according to the Michigan Nurses Association, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Canadians work in the United States with non-immigrant work visas.

It remained unclear what kind of documentation that essential workers would need to cross the border.

The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and Ambassador Bridge remained open as of Friday afternoon, as well as the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie. Tunnel officials said they were preparing for closure at midnight.

The new rule doesn't apply to air, freight rail or sea travel between the two nations, but passenger rail and ferry travel face the same restrictions. 

The crossing between Detroit and Windsor was the busiest for truck traffic along the U.S.-Canada border last year and second busiest for passenger vehicles with over 6 million total crossings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Port Huron was the third busiest for trucks along the border and the fourth busiest for passenger vehicles with over 2.27 million crossings in 2019. 

Combined, the Detroit and Port Huron crossings accounted for more than a third (36%) of all U.S.-Canada trade in 2019, the bureau said.

"We're grateful to have such an outstanding friend to the north who is committed as we are to defeating this virus," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, noting the border agreement with Canada would be reviewed after 30 days.

U.S. officials also announced Friday agreements with Canada and Mexico to turn back migrants seeking entry between ports of entry.

Wolf said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued an order directing the Department of Homeland Security to suspend the entry of "all individuals seeking to enter the U.S. without proper travel documentation."

"The CDC director has determined that the introduction and spread of the coronavirus in the department's Border Patrol stations and detention facilities presents a serious danger to migrants are frontline agents and officers in the American people," Wolf said. 

He noted migrants are arriving from nations from around the world experiencing outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, and "many of these individuals arrive with little or no identity travel or medical documentation making public health risk determinations all but impossible," Wolf said. 

"It's also important to note that the outbreak on our Southern border would likely increase the strain on health systems in our border communities taking away important and life-saving resources from American citizens."

Shutting the northern border entirely would lead to deep economic harm to both the U.S. and Canada. Canada relies on the U.S. for 75% of its exports. Much of Canada’s food supply comes from or via the states, and 98% of its oil exports go to the U.S. 

The State Department on Thursday told Americans not to travel abroad and urged those overseas to return home. 

Trudeau said Monday he was closing Canada'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.

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

mburke@detroitnews.com