A motley coalition of elected officials, bilateral business leaders and travellers-turned-lobbyists briefly cheered the coming reprieve from restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border Wednesday before confronting their next challenge: the question of mixed-dose vaccinations.
The plan for early November, spelled out by senior Biden administration officials as well as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, was short on key details, most notably whether the U.S. will consider the many Canadians who received two different vaccines to be fully vaccinated.
“Cross-border travel creates significant economic activity in our border communities and benefits our broader economy. We are pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner,” Mayorkas said in a statement.
“This new travel system will create consistent, stringent protocols for all foreign nationals travelling to the United States — whether by air, land, or ferry — and accounts for the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccinations.”
U.S. officials say experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are actively exploring the issue of whether to allow travellers who received a mix of vaccines. Ottawa has also been actively lobbying the White House on the issue, including with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s own research on the effectiveness of mixed doses.
That question, along with the absence of a hard start date beyond early November and a lack of specificity on what kind of paperwork travellers will be required to show, dampened the enthusiasm for an announcement people on both sides of the border have been waiting to hear for months.
“The job is not finished,” said Perrin Beatty, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“The two governments need to work together to ensure that fully vaccinated Canadians with mixed-dose combinations are eligible for entry into the United States.”
New York congressman Brian Higgins, whose crusade against the travel restrictions has made him the movement’s de facto spiritual leader, acknowledged that the White House needs to clarify precisely how it intends to define a fully vaccinated traveller.
“That is one of the issues that we’re trying to get clarification on,” Higgins told a news conference. “That’s one of those outstanding issues and still needs to be addressed.”
Why it took so long might remain a mystery for the ages, he added.
“I think it’s completely irrational. I think it’s totally unnecessary. These borders should have been opened at the same time, and should have been opened months, months earlier than they actually were opened.”
The U.S. will not be requiring travellers to show proof of a negative test for COVID-19, unlike Canada, which includes a recent negative PCR test among the requirements for everyone entering the country, including Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
Beatty also called on Canada to eliminate the need for a pre-departure test, as well as to work with the U.S. on an interoperable vaccine certification system in order to deal with anticipated higher travel volumes.
Drew Dilkens, the mayor of Windsor, Ont., called Wednesday’s announcement “a long time coming,” but echoed calls for more details about the logistics and for Canada to revisit the testing requirement.
“PCR tests, at least in Ontario, cost about $200 a person,” Dilkens said.
“So you’re not going to go over for the day, you’re not going to go over to see a baseball game or a concert or just pop over to see Mom and Dad — it’s going to be a very planned trip and it’s going to be very expensive.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who happened to be in Washington on Wednesday, warned Canadians not to let down their guard just yet.
“We have almost — almost — gotten past COVID,” Freeland said.
“Just try to do the things you need to do, and maybe hold back on doing the things that you just want to do. I think if we can keep on doing that for a few more weeks, Canada can really fully put COVID behind us.”
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said he believes Canadians will continue to be cautious, given that some parts of the U.S. have looser public health measures and higher COVID-19 case counts — a concern he said also emerged when Canada eased its border restrictions for Americans in early August.
“I do believe the Canadian government made a mistake by opening our border without getting a reciprocal arrangement with the Americans. It’s four months later, but it’s happening, and it’s a good thing,” he said.
“I just need to make sure that all the things will be in place to protect people when they go there and come back.”
Evan Rachkovsky, spokesman for the Canadian Snowbird Association, said he anticipates vehicle traffic at the border will come close to pre-pandemic levels once the restrictions are eased — but said the White House is definitely “cutting it close” for snowbirds hoping to winter in the southern U.S.
“There is obviously a bit of scrambling — some snowbirds have already made plans to ship their vehicle down south and then fly to meet those vehicles in the United States,” Rachkovsky said.
The Biden administration’s strategy is to dovetail the land border policy with its new international travel rules, which will also take effect in November and replace existing travel bans with a new requirement that all foreign nationals show proof of vaccination.
As of early January, all foreign nationals entering the U.S., whether for essential or non-essential reasons, will be required to show proof of vaccination, officials said.
In order to be considered fully vaccinated, travellers must have received a full course of a COVID-19 vaccine approved by either the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization. That includes Oxford-AstraZeneca, a vaccine used in Canada that never received FDA approval.
Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents have been allowed back into Canada since August, provided they have waited at least 14 days since getting a full course of a Health Canada-approved vaccine and can show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
—James McCarten, The Canadian Press