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U.S. extends Canada border restrictions through Aug. 21

US Canada Border (Flickr/WikiCommons)

The United States will continue to bar nonessential travel from Canada through Aug. 21, according to a Federal Register document published Wednesday from Customs and Border Protection.

The document, which was signed by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, pointed to a “specific threat to human life or national interests” with COVID-19 spread between the two countries. Infections in the U.S. have been rising again, fueled by the delta variant, which is accounting for about 83% of new cases.

Wednesday’s announcement comes days after Canada announced it would allow vaccinated Americans to start crossing the border for nonessential travel beginning Aug. 9. The 14-day quarantine currently imposed in the country will also be waived.

Ground border entrances in Metro Detroit play a significant role in the region’s economy and travel. Neal Belitsky, CEO of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, told The Detroit News earlier this week that COVID-19 restrictions led traffic to decrease from about 12,000 cars per day to about 3,000.

Michigan imports $45.2 billion and exports $22.7 billion in goods with Canada annually, according to Connect 2 Canada. Canadian travelers spent $355 million in Michigan in 2017.

The move shocked some federal lawmakers, especially those whose districts rely on the economic support of Canadian travelers.

“For months now people and businesses along the border have been strung along month after month holding out hope for the border to reopen,” said Brian Higgins, a Democratic U.S. representative from Buffalo. “Today’s decision by the Biden administration harms economic recovery and hurts families all across America’s northern border; this is completely unnecessary.”

Michigan Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican whose district includes Port Huron, which borders Ontario, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday urging loosened restrictions.

“Canada is beginning to reopen cross-border travel to Americans, and there’s no reason why our country needs to continue to keep the border closed,” McClain said in a statement. “Our northern border has been closed for well over a year, separating families and hindering small businesses in our border communities from the economic recovery they need to survive.”

U.S. Rep., Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who is co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group, said in a statement that the extended restrictions highlight Biden’s “inability to lead.”

“Families in Michigan and across the nation have been separated from their loved ones in Canada for 17 months,” Huizenga said in a statement. “President Biden’s inaction is also stifling the economic recovery of communities in Michigan, New York, and states that share a border with Canada.”

Huizenga pointed to the economic impacts of keeping the border closed to Canadians and the personal needs of Michigan residents as reasons for it to open.

“Michiganders deserve a President who will fight for them, not one that keeps them separated from their loved ones, lowers their standard of living, and threatens their livelihood,” he said.

There’s a similar feeling among politicians and constituents on the Canadian side of the border, said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley. Bradley said he and a group of other border city leaders briefed on the situation earlier in the week “were stunned.”

“When the border closed, it closed jointly,” Bradley said. “And the expectation, at least in my view, was to reopen jointly. And I would say in Canada, the response to the discrepancy between the two governments and the border is not being well received.”

Bradley said this announcement mainly impacts Canadians who have relatives on the other side of the border. Though not surprising, he said much of the frustration among Canadians stems from the “fundamental unfairness” of the governments not reopening their borders at the same time.

“Keep in mind, we had a group of American politicians … beating the drum that Canada needs to open its border and they need to do it now,” he said. “So Canada has moved forward and done its part, and now it’s not being reciprocated.”

The U.S. may be evaluating Homeland Security’s ability to screen for immunization and testing in ground travel, according to Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Institute at Western Washington University. There’s also continued touchiness around vaccine passports, which Trautman said adds difficulty to creating a streamlined system.

Trautman said the continuously evolving state of the pandemic can also cause worry when making federal policy changes. It’s further complicated by the fact that the U.S. has two international borders, she said, meaning that once one is open, the other should open.

“Once we lift them, they’re basically all or nothing, they are gone or they are there,” Trautman said of restrictions. “Part of the problem, I think, is that there’s still enough uncertainty about the delta variant and infection rates to just fully reopen the border.”

There’s also politics at play on both sides of the border. Trautman said Canadian lawmakers may have felt a need to reopen before the upcoming federal election. She also noted that the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations also likely caused some policy delays.

Another justification for keeping the border closed is that air travel is still an option, though Trautman said that is not as feasible for border cities like Detroit, Port Huron and Windsor.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, essential travel to the U.S. includes:

— U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States

— Medical travel

— Those attending educational institutions

— Work travel

— Emergency response and public health travel

— Lawful, cross-border trade

— Official government or diplomatic travel

— Members and family members of the U.S. Armed Forces returning to the U.S. and others partaking in military-related travel or operations.

Canada recently surpassed the U.S. in its vaccination rate despite a slow start in administering the COVID-19 shots.

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(c) 2021 The Detroit News

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