Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/11/2021 (201 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WASHINGTON—The reopening of the U.S. land border to Canadian leisure travellers on Monday was cause for celebration in communities on both sides of the Peace Bridge and the Ambassador Bridge. But along with the relief, there remains exasperation with Canadian testing requirements that still serve as a barrier to travel.
“Today marks the day that loved ones who have been separated for the past 19 months will finally be reunited. That is very, very significant,” Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, N.Y., told a virtual news conference. “In preparing for this day, we will see significant uptick in economic activity, but we’re still doing it with one hand tied behind our back, with this redundant, unnecessary testing requirement.”
That was a reference to the ongoing requirement that those entering Canada — Americans and returning Canadians alike — must provide proof of a negative result from a molecular COVID-19 test, such as a PCR test, that was taken within 72 hours. No such requirement exists for those entering the United States by land; those entering the U.S. by air do need a negative test result, but can use the cheaper rapid antigen tests.
But getting a PCR test result in the time frame required can be expensive — as much as $200 to $300 per person. When our free U.S. drugstore test results did not arrive in time for a recent visit to Canada, my family of four paid well over $1,000 (Cdn.) to get eligible rapid tests in New York state. For many travellers, especially those hoping to make a day trip or stay only a weekend, that cost is a deal-breaker.
“When you tell a family, ‘It’s going to cost you another $1,000 to visit,’ and you won’t have any more to eat or a nicer place to stay, they choose not to,” said Jim Diodati, the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont. In a community that depends on U.S. tourists for its economic survival, he said the testing requirement meant there were hardly any American licence plates visible on the streets of his city when the Canadian border opened to U.S. travellers in the summer.
Diodati said that while it’s a pressing economic issue for his residents, it’s also a matter of the community’s cross-border lifestyle. “Niagara Falls is one big city divided by a border,” Diodati said. “There’s family on both sides, friends on both sides, favourite restaurants, attractions, hotels, shopping. Just imagine wherever you live right now, if half of your town was cut off for the next two years, you are not allowed to cross into that area. Just imagine how that would affect you psychologically, emotionally.”
Those taking part in Monday’s news conference, which included the mayors of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Sarnia and Windsor, don’t think there’s much scientific justification for the testing requirement at this point — they note that vaccines are effective, and PCR tests are unlikely to detect a COVID-19 case contracted during a short visit because of the virus’s gestation period.
And that argument is emphasized to the point of absurdity by Canada’s policy of allowing day trippers to show results of tests taken in Canada before they left. Such a test doesn’t demonstrate anything at all about whether their travel across the border was safe or not. It couldn’t.
Even a co-chair of Canada’s advisory board on COVID-19 testing and screening acknowledged that the policy looks nonsensical. “Even if we were going to require tests from these travellers, a test taken in Canada before the trip even starts would not be helpful,” Dr. Irfan Dhalla told The Canadian Press.
I’ve heard from plenty of readers who think they spot a quiet conspiracy to keep cross-border travel and tourism dollars in Canada through the holiday season.
Those calling for an end to the testing requirement hope it won’t last through the holiday — Diodati and the others were pointing to a Nov. 21 deadline for Ottawa to renew its border guidelines as an opportune moment for change.
And recently, Ottawa has signalled it might be considering doing so. On Friday, Canada’s chief public health officer said changing the PCR test requirement is “actively being looked at” by her office. “Just to reassure everybody,” Dr. Theresa Tam said during a briefing, “we are looking at that quite carefully.”
Tam didn’t give a timeline, but Nov. 21 falls before the U.S. Thanksgiving four-day holiday weekend — and the Black Friday shopping bonanza in the middle of it — and well in time for Christmas family reunifications.
“Dr. Tam said that they’re reviewing the testing, which for those of us that know Ottawa-speak is a clear signal,” said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley. “The federal government is looking at this seriously, and they’re seeing the economic and social impact.”
Bradley said he’s optimistic that Nov. 21 will mark the end of the test requirements. “If they wish to change this, that would be the time to do it,” he said. “It’s perfect timing.”
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com