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‘About time’: Officials welcome news of border progress in Canada

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

PLATTSBURGH — Canadian leaders are reportedly contemplating steps that could loosen northern border restrictions as early as June 22, news North Country officials embraced with open arms Tuesday.

Up north vaccination

Politico reported Tuesday that Canadian border city mayors had announced possible border progress signaled by the Canadian government, like the country’s border point man Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.

Though he awaited further confirmation this week, Blair cited potential for some border restrictions to lighten the day after current ones are set to expire on June 21, the report says.

As previously reported by the Press-Republican, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his nation would only loosen widespread health restrictions, like those in place at the border, once 75% of the Canadian population received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 20% were fully vaccinated.

Unlike the United States’ vaccination rollout, in many cases Canadian vaccine doses were spaced several months, rather than several weeks, apart, somewhat stunting the nation’s percentage of fully vaccinated individuals.

As of Tuesday, nearly 57% of Canadians had received at least one dose and 5.7% were fully vaccinated.

According to the Politico report, Blair stated during a recent virtual meeting with Canadian mayors that Canada was on track to reach the prime minister’s vaccination goal by June 21.

End in sight

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, was among the happy North Country voices, feeling “our pleas for a phased approach to reopening are finally being heard.”

“I am thrilled that the end of this border closure is in sight,” he says in a statement. “Living in a border community like the North Country, everyone is impacted by the border closure in some way. Folks on both sides of the border have been separated from their families for far too long, and businesses continue to struggle without their loyal Canadian customers.

“That is why I have repeatedly called on both governments to make steps toward reopening the border, and most recently called on New York specifically to vaccinate essential travelers from Canada. Considering that the North Country continues to have low infection rates and our northern neighbors continue to see a decline as well, it is an opportune time to take these first steps to reopening the border.”

Baby steps

In the many months since the northern border closed to nonessential travelers in March 2020, officials stationed in border communities, like those in the North Country, have long advocated for a phased-in approach to reopening the border.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, just last week called on the Biden administration to unilaterally ease restrictions if a bilateral plan is not in place before June 21, and Jones has asked New York state to begin vaccinating Canadian truck drivers, who have continued to make daily trips into the U.S., to help speed up Canada’s vaccine rollout.

On Wednesday, Stefanik urged U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss Canada border reopening with Trudeau at the G-7 summit this weekend in the United Kingdom.

“Extending the current restrictions should not be an option and the Biden Administration must be ready to unilaterally begin the reopening process if the Canadian Government is unwilling to agree to a coordinated plan for reopening the northern border,” Stefanik said in a prepared statement.

Stefanik has co-sponsored the Northern Border Reopening Transparency Act, a bill that would require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to produce a report on reopening the U.S.-Canada border.

According to Politico, Trudeau announced during a virtual event hosted by the St. John’s Board of Trade that Canada was looking at how they would “start welcoming up tourists in a phased way,” but noted travelers should be fully vaccinated before entry.

Attendees of Blair’s recent virtual meeting said the public safety minister referenced the possibility for those partially and fully vaccinated to cross the border, but noted those with only partial vaccination may face greater restrictions, Politico reports.

“Long-sought hope”

The North Country Chamber of Commerce Tuesday welcomed the reports, saying the elimination of quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travelers was one measure on the table and noting the U.S. Government was considering other such actions.

“These reports are providing some long-sought hope for the start of a phased reopening process,” North Country Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Garry Douglas says in a chamber release. “Clearly, strong recent progress in the vaccination efforts in Canada as well as in the U.S. has helped.”

Douglas referenced recent calls from U.S. leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Northern Border Caucus Co-Chairs Stefanik and Brian Higgins, as well as “a growing chorus of calls within Canada.”

“We will continue to be part of these voices, openly and through all available private channels, while hoping we are seeing a first bit of light at the end of the tunnel. We note that President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau will be meeting in the U.K. at the G-7 summit on Friday. We hope the border will be a key subject, leading to some agreement, even if it involves differences at first.”

“About time”

While Jones said the North Country had been patient, with summer months approaching he said it became more difficult to understand why the border was still closed.

“It is about time that our calls to reopen the border are answered, and I will continue to work with our federal representatives and the North Country Chamber of Commerce to make progress toward ending the border closure.”

Clinton County Legislator Chair Mark Henry (R-Area 3) said the county was very happy to see “encouraging signs” of loosened border restrictions.

“We have been too long without a plan. We are grateful for all of the advocacy on this crucial issue, especially from Congresswoman Stefanik, Assemblyman Jones, and the North Country Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

“We look forward to having our Canadian friends visit us here again and for us to be able to visit them as well. This is great news for families, local business, and our regional economy.”

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The Enterprise staff contributed to this report.

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