Canada’s Justin Trudeau has a border problem. Like his counterpart in the White House, he’s being pummeled by his political opponents for it. Canada’s land border with the U.S., the world’s longest, has been shut to many foreign travelers for more than 13 months. Non-essential workers entering the country are required to quarantine for two weeks. The rules have blocked tourists, kept families apart, prevented students from visiting college campuses and hurt trade-dependent manufacturers.
But new variants of COVID-19 still arrive and a third wave has raged across parts of Canada. Trudeau finds himself squeezed between two groups. On one side are critics including doctors and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, who say loopholes in its travel rules and weak controls at airports have made the situation worse. On the other are businesses calling for the prime minister to loosen restrictions, or at least outline a plan for doing so.
In a country that sends more than 70% of its exports to the U.S., the border matters a lot. Trucks and trains continue to move goods despite the pandemic, but Canada’s tourism and travel-related businesses lost an estimated $15.6 billion in revenue last year from the plunge in international visitors.
Manufacturers are feeling the pain, too. From his base in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, Tim Galbraith competes with American companies to build industrial molds for U.S. factories. Border rules are costing him business with U.S. customers.
Technical experts won’t cross the border for key tasks, including testing out a mold before it ships, and prospective American clients won’t visit because of the quarantine.
“There’s no chance this guy is going to come and sit in a hotel for 14 days, just so he can come and spend 3 hours in our plant and drive home,” said Galbraith, sales manager at Cavalier Tool & Manufacturing Ltd. “This is a trade barrier the Canadian government has erected that is doing more to repatriate business in the U.S., in our industry, than all the Trump rhetoric of the last four years.”
A quick reopening seems unlikely. It’s not merely that Canada has a lot of virus cases, but a lot of serious ones. Ontario has about 850 people in intensive care units, and the number has more than doubled in a month. The province is under an emergency stay-at-home order.
Nationally, the mood is cautious. In a Leger poll conducted for the Association of Canadian Studies last month, 70% of Canadians said they worried about reopening the border with the U.S., versus 31% of Americans. Cases have jumped since the poll was taken, along with criticism of politicians at all levels of government for not doing enough.
Attitudes may change once more progress is made on vaccines. About 25% of Canadians have their first shot but just 2.4% are fully vaccinated, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
For the battered tourism industry, that may mean a second summer of empty hotel rooms and restaurants.
“What people don’t understand, too, is the huge connectedness between Canada and the U.S, especially in the border regions where we’re quite used to just going over to have dinner,” said Marta Leardi-Anderson, the executive director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor.
American tourists are missed at Le Priori, a boutique hotel nestled in Quebec City’s historic neighborhood where they usually make up a quarter of guests. Many visit after ending a cruise on the St. Lawrence River, spending freely and helping stretch the summer tourism season into the fall, general manager Erwan Franchet said.
Now, cruises are banned until 2022, Quebec’s capital city is in lockdown, and it’s still unclear how quickly vaccination will unlock borders.
Franchet expects visitors from other parts of Quebec this summer, but no end to the crisis until the end of the year. He worries the industry, which faces current occupation rates around 10%, may lose some players by then.
“There will be a huge demand for travel, everyone on the planet will compete to attract tourists and refill their coffers,” he said. “We must show up for it.”
About 550 miles to the southwest, at one of Canada’s most famous natural wonders, the president of Niagara Falls Tourism believes that moment may come as soon as the summer. The town welcomed only 36% of its usual 14 million visitors last year, but Janice Thomson pins her hopes on vaccination and rapid testing at the border.
“Those will give everyone confidence to travel and to get back at experiencing what we’re used to,” she said.
On the opposite side of the Niagara River, U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins is losing patience. His district, which includes Buffalo, took a massive hit from losing Canadian visitors at its airport, shops and sports arenas, he said.
Higgins has been pressing President Joe Biden to obtain exemptions for U.S. residents wanting to reunite with loved ones or access their property in Canada. He’s also pushing for a full reopening by July.
“My people are being denied access to Canada,” he said. Yet “with vaccines, the verification of vaccines, and wearing face masks, the likelihood of getting COVID-19 and the likelihood of giving COVID-19 is very, very low.”
Galbraith, from the Windsor mold-making company, says months of alerting authorities about the impact of current rules has gained the industry some support in its effort to exempt some technicians from quarantine. Manufacturing GDP dropped almost 10% last year and employment also fell, data shows.
“They’re seeing the fact that we’re not crying wolf,” he said. “We’re really losing business.”
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