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Group to study opening border, maybe in spring

Cars enter the U.S. from Canada. (Provided photo — Press-Republican)

PLATTSBURGH — Local officials welcomed the news of actual progress in the conversation surrounding when restrictions on the U.S.-Canada border, which have been in place since March, may be lifted.

The Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan policy think tank, recently announced the formation of a bi-national task force that, over the next few months, will develop recommendations for eventually reopening the world’s longest international land boundary to nonessential travel.

“This is very much the sort of serious bi-national planning discussion we have been seeking,” North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said in a statement, “including interaction with stakeholders on both sides of the border for information, input and advice.”

Former leaders

The U.S. and Canada jointly decided to close the border to nonessential travelers, including tourists, on March 21. Since then, the limits have been extended by 30-day increments, each one met with disappointment from politicians and businesspeople.

The Wilson Task Force on Public Health and the U.S.-Canadian Border is comprised of equal representation from both countries: former Premier of Quebec Jean Charest; former Washington state governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat; former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada Anne McLellan; and former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a Republican.

According to a Wilson Center press release, the group will meet virtually with public and private sector stakeholders and deliver recommendations in March.

Hopeful for spring

Douglas noted the chamber was pleased with Charest’s membership on the task force.

“We have already reached out to Premier Charest to offer our active assistance with consultations.”

While March seems a long way off, he continued, it reflects private indications that little will change before April.

“If we can see a serious and practical plan by March therefore, we can hopefully see increased cross-border travel once again for spring. We will, however, continue to suggest some potential modest revisions in the interim as well.”

The chamber has for several months advocated for interim measures to ease the restrictions and allow owners of property within 100 miles of the border, family members and certain business-related travel across the border.

Douglas anticipates that, though the task force has no official power to enact its findings, its advice will be taken seriously in both Washington and Ottawa.

Recommendations

North County Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who co-chairs the House Northern Border Caucus, said the collaboration is an important step in addressing how to safely reopen the border.

“I am encouraged that this task force will meet with public and private sector stakeholders to evaluate the impact of the border restrictions on our communities, public health and small businesses.”

Stefanik has previously pushed for a phased approach to lifting the restrictions, and remains committed to working toward that.

“I look forward to considering what this task force concludes as well.”

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., noted the valuable economic partnership between New York and Canada along the border, and emphasized ensuring that reopening does not put more lives at risk.

“It’s important to follow public health guidelines every step of the way to keep New Yorkers and Canadians safe and healthy,” she said. “I will continue monitoring this issue and the task force recommendations closely.”

Platform

New York state Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, who co-chairs the Council of State Governments’ Eastern Regional Conference’s (CSG East) Canada-U.S. Relations Committee, said the group’s formation was a much-needed and necessary step in the fight against COVID-19.

“Although international travel has undoubtedly changed, this task force will provide a platform for the extensive amount of planning required for such an undertaking,” he said in a statement.

The task force’s main goal will be to protect the health and safety of both Canadians and Americans, Jones continued.

“In addition to determining what kinds of joint security measures should be enforced when the reopening process begins, such as health screening and testing, the task force will help facilitate communications between the two countries and foster mutually beneficial outcomes.”

Workable time frame

Clinton County Legislature Chair Mark Henry, R-Area 3, said the county looks forward to the task force’s conclusions.

“Everybody I speak with hopes the border opens soon. It will take consultation between both countries to do that.”

He remarked that March could be a workable time frame which may allow enough time for vaccine rollout to make an impact.

Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor Michael Cashman said metrics and data points that would move the countries toward a safe reopening have long been needed, and that the Wilson Center group was sure to offer insight. But he posited that a further step should be taken.

“Now that the federal General Services Administration has acknowledged the President-elect Biden transition, I would like to see a formal U.S.-Canadian task force comprised of the two countries’ governments established.”

Encouraged

City of Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read said the task force “adopts the Canadian perspective that, if we don’t have our health, little else matters.”

“If only we could construct arrangements just among border regions rather than entire nations,” he said.

“This region understands that not doing things right can jeopardize trade that has been maintained over centuries. I’m grateful that thoughtful people are making serious recommendations on how to proceed, and trust they will do what is in the long-term best interest of two wonderful nations.”

State Sen. Betty Little said now is the time for constructive and hopeful dialogue to set the stage for reopening.

“I am very encouraged by this news knowing how important this will be for families, friends and lots of small businesses,” she said.

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