The thing about borders is they have two sides.
In order for the United States to reopen its northern border successfully, it must first have an understanding with those on the other side: the Canadian government.
Count Montanans among those border-sharing state residents frustrated by the fact that travel across this crucial border, although gradually loosening, is still restricted, and that no clear plan has been set forth to help Montana communities prepare for the remaining weeks of the summer tourism season.
“It really is in Canada’s lap, but I thought it would be open by now,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told the Missoulian’s Editorial Board last week.
He’s not the only one. The calls to fully reopen the northern border, or at least come up with a plan for doing so, have been ramping up in recent weeks, and are coming from businesses, industry associations and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for one, last week called on both U.S. and Canadian officials to set out a plan for reopening, and urged U.S. authorities to “take the first move in good faith to safely reopen the border to vaccinated Canadians.”
For his part, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has been calling for restored cross-border travel since the Trump administration, writing as early as March 2020 about the importance of trade with Canada to Montanans. Most recently, in late June he teamed up with House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik to introduce a bill that would force the Biden administration to move forward with opening the northern border.
“It is unacceptable that President Biden continues to ignore the needs of Montanans and keep the northern border closed while supporting the southern border being wide open to a surge of illegal immigrants and a flood of illegal drugs into our Montana communities,” Daines said in announcing the legislation. “Access to the northern border is critical for Montana jobs, agriculture and tourism. We cannot wait any longer for Biden to do what’s right — it’s time to reopen the northern border for Montana.”
Montana shares about 545 miles of the border, and 14 crossing stations, with the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Travel was initially restricted in March 2020 in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 through international travel. Nations across the globe instituted strict measures to ensure no one entering their countries was carrying the virus.
Now that effective vaccines are increasingly available and more regions are approaching “herd immunity,” those measures are gradually relaxing. On July 5, Canada announced it would begin loosening some of its requirements on international travelers: those who have been fully vaccinated — with a vaccine approved for use in Canada — will no longer have to undergo a 14-day quarantine, and those traveling by air will no longer have to spend their first three days in Canada quarantined in an approved hotel.
However, visitors entering Canada must still take a coronavirus test within 72 hours of their planned visit, and non-essential travel will remain restricted through at least July 21. On the U.S. side, the Department of Homeland Security has also extended its restrictions on non-essential travel across the Canadian border through July 21.
The agency is under increasing pressure to take the lead on fully reopening the border, fueled in large part by the decline in new COVID infections thanks to the increasing vaccination rate. In June, the Centers for Disease Control reduced its warning about the risk of contracting the virus via travel through Canada — from “very high” to “high.” As of early July, more than 26 million Canadians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, or nearly 80% of those eligible.
On the U.S. side, more than 332 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered at last count, with at least 158 million U.S. citizens fully vaccinated. President Biden had pushed hard for a nationwide goal of administering at least one dose to at least 70% of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July, but so far the number is about 67%.
Montana is not quite up to that level yet. Although more than 513,000 residents have received at least one dose, that’s still only about 48% of the state’s population — but still much better than either of our immediate neighbors in Idaho or North Dakota.
If Montanans want to help convince our neighbors to the north that it’s safe to reopen the border, we might want to do a better job of vaccinating more of our residents. Until then, Canadians can be forgiven for being a bit hesitant.
The U.S. government could help with these efforts by setting out clear goals for establishing safe travel across the northern border, so citizens on both sides will know what steps they need to take and what sort of documents they will need to provide.
Daines’s “Restoring Northern Border Travel Act” would require the Biden administration to begin implementing a plan to fully restore travel within 20 days, as well as require the DHS to expand the list of approved travel within 10 days to include:
• An individual traveling to visit a member of their immediate or extended family who is a United States citizen or permanent resident.
• An individual traveling to visit property they own or lease within the United States.
• An individual traveling to the United States to attend business meetings or site-visits.
• An individual traveling directly to a United States airport to board a flight to a United States or international destination.
In another 10 days, of course, the legislation could be moot. Or new outbreaks of variants could prompt governments on either side to slam the doors shut again. Canadians and United States citizens alike should know what the plan is in either case.
— The Missoulian
The Missoulian editorial board includes Publisher & President Jim Strauss, Editorial Page Editor Tyler Christensen and Editor James Van Nostrand.