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Panel aims to expedite northern border reopening

Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 5:18 PM EDT
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PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (WCAX) - It’s been 13 months since the northern border was closed down by the pandemic. That order was recently extended to May 21st as COVID cases continue to rise throughout Canada and the pace of vaccinations lags behind the U.S. Policymakers and business leaders from both sides held virtual talks Wednesday on how to expedite that reopening.

“Make no mistake, a wall has been placed between us on the border,” said Garry Douglas with North Country Chamber of Commerce.

While commercial trade has not been impacted by the border closure, non-essential travel is down tenfold. Numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that under 390,000 personal vehicles crossed the border in 2020 compared to 2.3 million in 2019. There have been 24,000 so far this year.

“It is fundamentally harming the U.S.-Canadian special relationship, and the fact that it has gone on so long has already created lasting damage that we’ll have to work long and hard to repair,” Douglas said.

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest and former Republican Vermont Governor Jim Douglas are among the 10 participants on The Wilson Task Force on Public Health and the US-Canadian Border, hosted by the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C. think tank. “What no one could predict is the effect of the variants and the situation we’re in today,” Charest said.

The panel was expected to release a reopening proposal by the end of March, but that was pushed back and no plans have been released yet. Charest said he expects vaccinations and COVID metrics will need to improve before the situation will improve. “Then, I think both governments will contemplate scenarios by which they could open the border with certain conditions.,” he said. He says digital passports could be used, as well as testing and quarantine for travelers.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-New York, who serves as co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, says both countries need to develop a policy to help people with cross-border properties and separated families. “Leaving cross-border travel restricted in the same manor as during the height of the pandemic does not make sense. We need to start laying the groundwork for a full, safe reopening,” she said.

Charest says in the last few weeks, Canada has made headway in vaccinations, getting 30% of the country vaccinated compared to 43% in the U.S. He says he hopes the U.S. will look at the northern and southern borders separately when it comes to reopening. Mexico is trailing with only 10% of the country vaccinated.

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