Trudeau government begins work on reopening US-Canada border

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has begun preliminary internal discussions about reopening the border with the U.S., even as Canada remains well behind its neighbor in vaccinations.

Senior officials have begun to formally talk about options for how to proceed, three people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition they not be identified. One question under consideration is whether to employ a two-track system in which quarantine and testing requirements would be relaxed for vaccinated travelers.

The world’s longest international border has been shuttered since March 2020 to most nonessential travel, dramatically reducing land and air traffic between the two countries. The restrictions have hit the nation’s tourism and airline sectors particularly hard — one estimate says the measures cost those industries about $16.5 billion in revenue last year.

“In the end, it’s a political decision, and at what point does the Canadian side — and it’s the Canadian side at this point that’s the slowpoke — decide that they’re ready to receive and what categories of people that they’ll open up to,” Michael Kergin, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., said in a phone interview. “A staged reopening would be the logical approach.”

Any reopening of the border would be gradual and contingent on declining cases in both countries, the officials said.

The third wave of the pandemic has hit the northern nation harder because of a vaccine rollout that’s been slowed by supply issues and shipment delays. Many Canadian provinces remain in extended lockdowns even as the country has ramped up its vaccination campaign.

A reopening of the border probably isn’t imminent, and the discussions in the government are just getting started, the officials said. According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, 34.1% of Canadians residents have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and only 2.7% are fully inoculated, compared with 46.6% and 35.8%, respectively, in the U.S.

Trudeau has said that most Canadians aren’t likely to be fully vaccinated until September.

One challenge is coming up with an approach, in coordination with the U.S., to verify vaccination documentation. Trudeau has said Canada is open to vaccine passports, which are electronic documents that would allow countries to verify whether travelers have been inoculated. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, by contrast, has ruled them out. That will leave companies and other institutions like colleges to determine their own rules.

“It would make sense for us to align with partners around the world on some sort of proof of vaccination or vaccine certification,” Trudeau said at a May 4 news conference. “We are looking very carefully at it, hoping to align with allied countries, but I can’t speak for the United States and the choices they might make around who to welcome into their country.”

Canada has said it’s working with the European Union to align their approaches. The EU is already pushing ahead with plans to end internal travel restrictions for vaccinated individuals.

“The problem is we have an asymmetrical situation here,” Kergin said, referring to the vaccination disparity between Canada and the U.S.

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© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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