WATERTOWN — The Canadian government announced Thursday that the country will begin allowing vaccinated Americans to cross its borders for nonessential travel starting Aug. 9 — months after calls from American leaders to end the border closure.
As vaccination rates rose and infection rates for COVID-19 dropped, officials including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and a litany of local leaders from the north country, called for Canada to welcome Americans back into their country, and allow Canadians to cross into and out of the United States.
Those first steps seem to be coming soon, but the White House pumped the brakes Monday. According to the Associated Press, White House Press Secretary Jennifer R. Psaki said the U.S. would not commit to reopening their side of the border on Aug. 9.
“We are continuing to review our travel restrictions and any decisions about reopening travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts,” she said during a press briefing. “We take this incredibly seriously, but we look and are guided by our own medical experts. I wouldn’t look at this through a reciprocal intention.”
North country representatives responded to that comment Tuesday with varying degrees of surprise and dissatisfaction.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, said the Canadian announcement to reopen was a welcome development after 16 frustrating months, but it will have little positive impact in the north country if the border is not reopened on both sides.
He said he would be surprised if the Biden administration did not reopen the border alongside the Canadians on Aug. 9.
“It has been implied for the past several months that we were waiting on the (Justin) Trudeau administration,” he said.
He said that if the border is not reopened on both sides, Canadian citizens would not be able to cross into the U.S. for nonessential purposes. For the north country, which relies heavily on Canadian visitors patronizing shops, restaurants and activities, that means more months of reduced economic opportunity.
“It would be a continuing struggle for family members on the Canadian side and business here in the north country, and really through New York and the country, if Canadians aren’t allowed to come here,” he said.
State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, echoed the assemblyman’s sentiments. She said the news of the Canadians reopening their border is a step in the right direction, and the region she represents relies heavily on cross-border traffic.
“With the summer travel season in full swing, I am hopeful the U.S. will take reciprocal action in the very near future and reopen its side of the border to Canadians,” the senator said.
Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, called on Rep. Stefanik, as well as U.S. Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Schumer, both D-N.Y., to push for the border to be opened to Canadians. Sen. Schumer and Rep. Stefanik have both called on the U.S. to open its borders unilaterally by Wednesday if the Canadians did not announce a reopening plan.
In Sackets Harbor on July 6, Sen. Schumer called for the U.S. to unilaterally reopen the border, and said the Canadian government was dragging its feet on a bilateral reopening agreement. He said Canadian officials had told him about divisions within the ruling party in the Canadian parliament, as well as divisions among the minority parties about when and how to reopen the border that were preventing any action.
He said there seemed to be support in President Joseph R. Biden’s administration to reopen the border unilaterally at that time.
In a statement sent Monday, Sen. Schumer said the Canadian border policy announcement has potential to be massively impactful news for thousands of people, but only if the U.S. and Canadian governments collaborate on reopening procedures, which he said he has expressed to the Canadian ambassador.
“The U.S. and Canadian governments must work in lock-step over the next few weeks to ensure the safest and most efficient procedures are followed and not unduly burdensome for any and all vaccinated individuals wishing to cross the border in either direction,” he said. “The United States must now immediately follow suit, make our policy uniform and further energize New York’s recovery.”