OTTAWA — U.S. lawmakers are calling on Canada to open the border "immediately" to fully vaccinated travelers, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will proceed with caution.
“We've seen a success where Canadians are able to come back to Canada if they're fully vaccinated and not have to quarantine,” Trudeau told reporters in Gaspé, Quebec on Wednesday, adding recent minor changes to restrictions have gone “extremely well.”
He dialed back the optimism by urging continued vigilance, alluding to ongoing concerns about the Delta variant and jurisdictions that had to reintroduce restrictions.
Trudeau made his comments hours after Midwest legislators unanimously passed a resolution that calls on the White House and Canadian government to reopen the border “immediately” to fully vaccinated travelers.
“The reality is we know how unbelievably costly and heartbreaking it would be to fall into a fourth wave of this pandemic,” the prime minister said.
Quick background: The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020. It has been extended on a rolling monthly basis. The current agreement is set to expire July 21.
Trudeau has faced harsh criticism from both sides of the border from business groups and border city lawmakers including Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.). New York State Assemblymember Jonathan Rivera sent a letter to Kirsten Hillman, ambassador of Canada to the U.S., earlier this month, calling the target an “unreasonable and unfeasible objective.”
New pressure: Bipartisan support buoyed the resolution at the Midwestern Legislative Conference, an annual regional meeting for state and provincial leaders, echoing frustrations over continued border restrictions.
“The interpretation of what is considered essential travel has been a matter of discretion by individual border crossing agents, creating confusion,” the one-page resolution reads. “Fully vaccinated people do not provide a threat of Covid-19 transmission.”
The Midwestern Legislative Conference is a regional branch of the national nonprofit, the Council of State Governments. The U.S. legislative body invited Canada to formally participate. But due to border restrictions, few Canadian delegates attended in person.
How the resolution happened: Scotty Greenwood, chief executive officer of the Canadian American Business Council, was invited to speak at the Rapid City, S.D conference about the private sector and supply chains.
“Then we also talked about the border closure,” Greenwood told POLITICO. “A fairly animated discussion emerged with legislators, expressing a lot of frustration about the continued closure of the Canada-U.S. border, particularly typically vaccinated Americans.”
The resolution wasn’t “pre-cooked,” Greenwood said, adding that it emerged organically from frustrated conversations on the conference floor.
Secrecy around decision-making process: The Public Health Agency of Canada is responsible for administering the Quarantine Act, which gives the federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu the authority to establish protocols for travelers who may have communicable diseases, such as Covid-19.
Trudeau has repeatedly said that his government has been making its pandemic-related decision based on science and public health recommendations. Canada’s chief public health officer suggested border-related announcements rest with Trudeau.
Theresa Tam told reporters last week that she has been giving advice covering the trajectory of vaccination coverage, variants of concern and epidemiology. “Ultimately,” she said, “I will, of course, leave it to the prime minister to communicate what the next steps might be.”
Madeleine Gomery, spokesperson for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, offered little clarity when asked by POLITICO to identify the decision-makers charged with handling the Canada-U.S. border file.
“The decision to update public health measures at the border is taken at the Cabinet level, and involves a variety of factors,” Gomery said. “While we can’t enter into the details of Cabinet discussions, broadly speaking, these decisions are based on extensive consultations with counterparts in the United States and worldwide, and on the expert advice of officials and Canada’s public health agencies.”
The data: More than 50 percent of eligible Canadians have been fully vaccinated, according to data collected by CTV News.
The Trudeau government previously signaled border-related restrictions won’t change until at least 75 percent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated.
Border restrictions have been in place since the onset of the pandemic to curb the potential import of Covid-19 into the country.
In November, Canada’s health department appointed a 13-member “COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel” to provide advice to the federal government for potential application at land and air borders.
The panel released a report in May that cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated advice that fully vaccinated travelers are “less likely to get and spread COVID-19.” It also found that the number of imported Covid-19 cases through the land border is a fraction of those detected in air travelers.
Public health data suggests among those surveyed between Feb. 22 and March 24, 2021, “Air travelers had an arrival test positivity rate of 1.5 percent while land travelers had an arrival test positivity rate of 0.3 percent.”
What’s next: The border is a topic that is expected to be raised in Trudeau’s call with premiers on Thursday.
The resolution passed by slate legislators is expected to be conveyed to members of Congress to bring it to the attention of the White House.
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