U.S. travel restrictions at Canadian border extended another month, through Oct. 21

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. travel restrictions at the land border with Canada will be extended another month, despite a White House announcement Monday to allow foreign travelers to fly into the U.S. if they are vaccinated and have a negative COVID-19 test.

The extended closure of the land border to all but essential travel applies to both Canada and Mexico through Oct. 21, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on a Monday call. The restrictions would have expired Tuesday. 

"Today, the administration's announcing a move to safer and more harmonized global approach to international, inbound air travel," Zients said when asked about the Canadian and Mexican border. "We do not have any updates to the land border policies."

A view from the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge of backups on the Ambassador Bridge due to a work slowdown by Canadian border agents on Aug. 6, 2021. U.S. travel restrictions at the land border with Canada will be extended another month, through Oct. 21, 2021, despite a White House announcement Monday to allow vaccinated foreign travelers to fly to the U.S. if they meet certain criteria.

Canada reopened its border to vaccinated U.S. travelers over a month ago on Aug. 9, but the U.S. has not reciprocated — a point that critics from Michigan and elsewhere noted Monday. Canadians who wish to enter the U.S. for non-essential travel such as tourism may do so only by flying in.

Zients did not offer an explanation for continuing the restrictions at the land border, which have been in place for 18 months, since March 2020, and were imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The restrictions have since been renewed month by month, causing significant hardship for separated families and friends, cross-border property owners and businesses in border communities. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican who co-chairs the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group, said continuing to treat the Canadian border differently than air travel is "nonsensical," especially when thousands of migrants are illegally crossing the Southern border. 

"President (Joe) Biden continues to fail the communities across Michigan and the northern border states that rely on tourism dollars from Canadians to support small businesses and the livelihood of the families that run them," Huizenga said.

"The continuation of this fact-free, ad-hoc policy-making punishes Michigan families, small businesses, and communities for no reason."

New York U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat and co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, blasted the decision to continue the restrictions for yet another month, calling it "completely unnecessary and unexplained."

“It is welcome news that the White House is making progress on reciprocating international public health measures to protect air travelers," said Higgins, who represents the Buffalo and Niagara Falls areas.

"Yet it is inexplicable that no announcement on easing travel restrictions at land ports of entry is being made today since the livelihoods of communities across the Northern Border depend on cross-border commerce."

He said the Canadians' unilateral move to allow vaccinated Americans to cross the border for the last month demonstrated that a safe reopening is possible, saying the United States is overdue to do the same. 

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, was also frustrated. "If we would just be consistent it would be a lot easier for the American people to swallow," she said. "I’m trying to understand the logic and just don’t see it."

At this time, Canada is ahead of the U.S. in vaccinations, with 69% of its population fully vaccinated and 79% of those ages 12 and older. That's compared with 55% of the U.S. population that's fully vaccinated and 64% of those 12 and up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this month that the delta variant delayed U.S. plans to reopen the border to Canadians, suggesting that it will happen when public health data show it's safe to do so. 

"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 told the Buffalo News, acknowledging the effects on border community economies and on family unification. 

"We are watching the trajectory of the delta variant here in the United States and are hopeful that we can open up that border as quickly as possible."

The group Let Us Reunite represents thousands of families on both sides of the border pressing the U.S. to make travel exemptions for family members, as Canada did more than a year ago. 

"What data suggests that it's safer to travel on a crowded plane than to cross the border in a private car?" the group tweeted in response to Mayorkas' remarks.

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, is hopeful that the next step for the U.S. after the air travel announcement will be a plan for land and ferry borders. 

"It’s unfortunate we couldn’t just say, no matter who you are, where you’re coming from, what your mode of travel is, as long as you’re vaccinated and have a negative test, you can come in," Trautman said. "If you’re healthy, that’s what matters."

She suspects that part of the holdup at the land border is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection lacks a mechanism for reviewing travelers' health information, which for air travelers is done by gate agents. 

CBP agents have been "adamant" that that’s not their job, Trautman said. 

She noted the agency has an app similar to ArriveCan, which the Canadian government uses to receive mandatory travel information from travelers prior to their arrival.

"But to my knowledge, there hasn't been any effort or at least no public communication of an effort to tailor that app to be able to collect either vaccine records or test results," Trautman said. "And that's kind of where we need to go."

Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, wrote to Biden with a group of northern border colleagues last week, urging him to permit vaccinated Canadians to travel to the U.S. through the land border, citing “economic and emotional strain in our communities” caused by the months of restrictions.

They want Biden to lift the restrictions by October, create a public plan to reopen land ports of entry to vaccinated Canadians and to appoint an interagency official to lead on coordinating U.S.-Canadian travel rules related to COVID-19. 

“We appreciate the need to prioritize the health and safety of the American public through reasonable restrictions on international travel,” the senators wrote.

“However, we believe that fully vaccinated Canadians should be allowed to safely travel into the United States via land ports of entry.”

Zients said Monday that the changes for air travel by vaccinated foreigners to the U.S. will be implemented starting in November. 

Foreign travelers flying to the U.S. will need to show proof of vaccination before boarding their flight and proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the last three days, Zients said.

"The new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for passengers flying internationally into the U.S.," Zients said. "And this individual-based, rather than country-based approach to risk is the right system."

The administration is also changing testing rules for unvaccinated American citizens, who will need to be tested within a day of their departing flight to the U.S. and again after they return home.