BELLINGHAM — When it comes to lifting the current travel restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border, the only certainty at this point is the uncertainty about when and how it will happen.
That was the assessment of one panelist as border experts from both the U.S. and Canada grappled with the idea of how to safely ease restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion took place during an online event on Wednesday.
Called “Strategies for Easing Non-Essential Travel Restrictions,” the online event was organized by the Canada-United States Business Association. It is currently available for replay online.
The discussion explored possible paths forward from the current situation. Right now the U.S.-Canada border is closed to non-essential travelers through Sept. 21. The restrictions, which started in March, have received 30-day extensions throughout the summer and is expected to be extended again into the fall as both countries try to get the pandemic under control.
Commercial goods and essential workers, including those in the medical field, can continue to pass through the border.
The border restrictions continue to have a huge impact, particularly on people who have family members and property they can’t visit. Point Roberts residents continue to have difficulties visiting other parts of Whatcom County, so much so that the Port of Bellingham is looking into establishing a ferry between the community and Blaine.
Laurie Trautman, one of the panelists and the director for the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, estimated that Whatcom County lost $60 million in cross-border retail sales in the first half of 2020.
Here are some of the topics discussed during the event:
When will the restrictions end?
That remains unclear, but some of the panelists expect that the recent pandemic surge and U.S. presidential election is putting this issue on the back-burner for now.
What’s been particularly painful for businesses near both sides of the border is the 30-day extensions, said Andrea Van Vugt, one of the panelists and global director of Harper & Associates in Canada. It makes it difficult for businesses to plan; providing some measurement about when the border might open would be helpful, she said.
The expectation is that the Canadian and U.S. federal governments would end the restrictions at the same time, but that is not set in stone.
When the federal governments do decide to lift restrictions, there might be further restrictions from local jurisdictions, much like how each state is handling the pandemic. For example, Canada could lift travel restrictions but British Columbia could still have restrictions or require a quarantine.
How would easing restrictions happen?
While ultimately up to the federal governments, several panelists are urging for a phased approach to reopening, something many U.S. states are doing. Maybe start with an exemption for Point Roberts residents, then move on to family meetings.
Starting with the low-hanging fruit in terms of easing restrictions would allow for managing outbreaks before moving on to allowing cross-border shopping, said panelist Kathryn Bryk Friedman, a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
There’s an expectation among panelists that a health screening of sorts could be added to the standard border questions once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Trautman said that some technology advances, including initiatives that would promote less contact between border agents and travelers, could move forward more quickly. Ideas like facial recognition and biometric scans were on the cusp of being implemented before the pandemic arrived, she said.