Cross-border experts are frantically working on principles that the two countries could use to guide future border management decisions until viable treatments or vaccines for the virus hit the market. They say border communities are facing the economic ruin of a prolonged closure to personal travel and some business travel during what has become the biggest border disruption since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“The endless border closure is devastating to both economies,” said Maryscott Greenwood, a former American diplomat in Ottawa who heads the Canadian-American Business Council.
Citizens of one country who own property in the other have not been allowed to control their housing. Since mid-March, border towns used to welcoming cross-border visitors to their restaurants and shops have experienced a sharp drop in activity.
The bipartisan co-chairs of the US House Northern Border Caucus wrote a letter earlier this month to senior officials from each country’s border agencies urging them to “immediately develop a comprehensive framework for the gradual reopening of the border based on objective measures and taking into account the varied circumstances across border regions.
The 29 legislators – led by New York officials, Brian Higgins, a Democrat, and Elise Stefanik, a Republican – have also asked the Department of Homeland Security and the Canada Border Services Agency to consider relaxing restrictions in the interim for family members and landowners.
DHS spokesman Alexei Woltornist said the department is in close contact with Canada and Mexico, where similar restrictions are also in place, but has “no changes to announce” yet.
“We will examine the potential categories of expansion when public health conditions allow,” he said.
A CBSA spokesperson declined to comment on the discussions.
Canadians – and some of their most prominent political leaders – are firmly opposed to the reception of American visitors while the United States daily breaks records of infection confirmed by Covid-19. A few weeks ago, Ontario Premier Doug Ford warned against reopening the border, and health officials in British Columbia released data showing that much of the strains of Viruses identified in this country came from Washington State.
A poll released last week by Abacus Data shows that 89% of Canadians want the border to stay closed longer. Yet some Canadians have taken advantage of a loophole that allows them to travel to the United States largely unhindered, although they must quarantine for two weeks upon their return to Canada. So many Canadians have visited loved ones in a park on the border between British Columbia and Washington that the province has closed its side of space.
Cross-border experts are developing proposals for Ottawa and Washington that recognize the new standard while allowing some personal travel to resume.
The Future Borders Coalition, which includes bi-national transportation and business groups and logistics companies, is studying how to implement a “pre-clearance” program in the United States and Canada to minimize the risk that passengers of airlines spread and catch the new virus.
As the terminal operating area has shrunk amid cratered demand, airports could create a “biosecurity area” and perform rapid Covid tests for arriving passengers, said Gerry Bruno, vice president of government affairs federal to the Vancouver Airport Authority and executive director of the coalition.
If everyone entering secure areas is negative for the virus, he said, the airport shops and restaurants could operate normally, and the airlines would know their planes are without Covid. The goal is to have a pilot program in the next six to eight months at three or four American and Canadian airports.
“It’s something that keeps us going and that shouldn’t be locked up, if you will, for the next two years, if it’s the time it takes,” said Bruno.
But for the plan to work, the accuracy of Covid testing must improve and governments must be willing to fund the project, say its supporters. Just as September 11 has reshaped travel to emphasize safety, they argue, the pandemic will likely require public health to take more account of the travel experience.
“If we find ways to successfully integrate public health concerns with safety and efficiency, there is no reason why we should not maintain this type of filtering,” said Laurie Trautman, Director from the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University.
Another problem is to determine who in countries’ border security systems would test travelers upon entering airports. “Nobody wants to own this,” said Matt Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Northwest economic region, a public-private not-for-profit organization focused on the economic development of the region.
As crossing restrictions continue until mid-summer, border communities are seeing their economic effects.
A ferry service between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, announced Friday that it is extending the suspension of operations until April 2021, citing current restrictions and Canada’s 14-day mandatory quarantine period for travelers arriving from abroad.
“The loss of any summer operation makes operations [the Victoria] Clipper in 2020 unrealistic, “said the company.
Montana Republican State Senator Mike Cuffe said businesses near his home in Lincoln County, which borders the interior of British Columbia, are struggling as Canadians travel there generally for tourism can not visit. A car show in August and a chain saw sculpture competition in September are usually big draws.
“We are very close to the point where I can start counting how many people tell me they are going to go bankrupt in a month,” he said.