Making it up as they go: The Liberals don’t seem to have a plan for the border

July 08, 2021

On Monday, travel rules were eased so fully vaccinated Canadians coming back to the country no longer have to quarantine for 14 days. You can fly to the United States, but you can’t drive, unless your travel is essential, but the interpretation of that can vary from one U.S. border guard to the next.

Is cross-border travel allowed? No. And yes. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was talking last week as though vaccinated Canadians would be able to travel to the U.S. again this week – but while it’s easier to come back, it’s not always easy to go. The government still officially advises against non-essential travel.

And now, two weeks from the date when the U.S.-Canada border closure is up for renewal on July 21, there are hints that restrictions will be eased: Mr. Trudeau said the government hopes there will be next steps in weeks – but no articulation of an actual plan.

Government officials have indicated they want to see higher vaccination rates, among other things – 75 per cent of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, according to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, although Mr. Trudeau suggested last week 80 per cent might be needed to be safe. But that’s only one factor, along with the numbers of cases and hospitalizations in Canada, and around the world. How will that be judged? That’s a secret recipe.

What will happen if all the right mix of conditions, whatever they are, is met? The government won’t say, exactly. The planning is so muddy you can’t call it a plan.

“It’s episodic. It’s piecemeal. And that suggests they’re making it up as they go along,” said Goldy Hyder, the president and chief executive officer of the Business Council of Canada. Business groups want the border to start opening, and unsurprisingly, the tourism industry does, too. First, they want to hear the plan.

It feels instead like the government is watching polls to see if Canadians, accustomed to fearing health dangers from the U.S. for more than a year, feel it’s safe.

But the fear is largely based on conflating two things: opening the border to fully vaccinated travellers, or opening it completely.

It’s safe for fully vaccinated people to cross borders, because the risk of transmission is so low. That’s what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said, and Health Canada’s Expert Advisory Panel, too. That’s why the federal government dropped quarantine rules for fully vaccinated Canadians.

The obvious next step is to open the Canadian border to fully vaccinated Americans. U.S. politicians have been furiously calling on Canada to open the border, so you’d think an agreement could be struck to reopen with somewhat different rules on each side.

Returning Canadians have to use an app, ArriveCan, to submit proof of vaccination. Americans could do the same thing, or submit documents in advance. States such as New York have vaccination records – and Americans who don’t have records don’t have to be let in.

But if all that is in the works for July 21, or even later, you’d want to let people know. Get the word out. The tourism industry, in particular, wants to plan. Instead, Beth Potter, the president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, is watching countries such as France declare Canadians welcome, while this country remains mysterious.

“One of the things we’re trying to understand is, what is the plan?” she said.

Instead, there is a hodge-podge of nonsensical rules. A Canadian in Montreal can fly to Paris but not drive an hour to upstate New York, that is, unless they fit the complicated list of exempt categories. There has been an expansion of those categories, but it would have been better to move sooner to allowing vaccinated people across the border.

Mr. Trudeau has hinted easing of the rules will come within weeks. Yet it’s a mystery. Canadian officials express concerns that they don’t have the capacity to deal with lineups at the border, a byproduct of a failure to plan that may be delaying decisions.

The vague, “stay tuned” non-information from the Liberal government will cause its own problems. The best way to reopen a border smoothly is by telling everyone how it will work. Canada’s tourism industry doesn’t know if vaccinated American visitors will be allowed in in two weeks or two months, or what those people will need to visit. They’re asking. But the Liberal government doesn’t seem to have a plan.