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As pressure mounts, U.S. downgrades Canada travel advisory, Trudeau plots border reopening

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Rep. Chris Jacobs calls for the opening of the U.S.-Canada border as he stands in front of family members who are separated from their loved ones, during a news conference at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, Sunday, June 6, 2021.

WASHINGTON – The Canadian government plans to ease its travel restrictions at the U.S. border "in the coming weeks and months," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department moved Canada out of its Level Four travel advisory, which warns Americans: “Do Not Travel” there. Canada, along with Mexico and 56 other countries, moved into Level Three, which advises that people “Reconsider Travel” to those destinations.

The moves came as pressure mounted on both sides of the border to reopen the crossing. A coalition of U.S. and Canadian business groups Tuesday sent Trudeau a letter urging him to loosen border restrictions, and Rep. Chris Jacobs introduced legislation aimed at forcing the Biden administration to explain its preparation for eventually doing the same.

Trudeau said Monday that his nation would take a phased approach to the reopening, and he reiterated that point at a news conference in Ottawa a day later.

"There are going to be stages, which will make it possible to ease rules in the coming weeks and months," he said. "There will be announcements to make in due course."

"As it relates to borders – Canada or Mexico – we really rely on the guidance of the CDC and our health and medical experts. So in terms of how they look at the data and information, I would point you to them and whether they would do that in a preliminary fashion or not," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

The U.S.-Canadian border was closed to nonessential travel near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic on March 21, 2020, and that closure has been extended on a monthly basis ever since. The latest extension is set to expire on June 21, but Trudeau refused to confirm media reports that Canada will open its borders to fully vaccinated visitors on that day.

However, Trudeau reiterated that when the border opens, Canada will require visitors to be fully vaccinated.

"As more and more people begin to be protected, yes, we will be able to ease up the rules," he said. "Science has told us that people who are double vaccinated are at much lower risk and pose much lower risk to the community."

Trudeau's comments were among his most extensive yet regarding the border's reopening. But the Canadian minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, Bill Blair, provided even more details in a recent phone call with mayors of Canadian border communities.

Blair said it is possible that some of the border restrictions will be eased June 21, said Wayne Redekop, the mayor of Fort Erie, Ont.

Trudeau has said 75% of Canadians have to get their first vaccination and 20% must be fully vaccinated before the border restrictions can be eased. Those figures were at 62.3% and 7.9%, respectively, as of Monday.

"The vaccination effort in Canada has been going very, very well, and the number of people that are now getting second doses of their vaccination is pretty significant," Redekop said.

That being the case, "I don't see any question that by July there will be some easing of the restrictions," Redekop said.

Blair plans on updating the mayors again soon on Canada's reopening plan, Redekop added.

The Biden administration has offered no similar details on how the U.S. plans to manage the eventual border reopening.

However, the State Department did decide to remove Canada – as well as countries such as Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Switzerland – from its "Do Not Travel" list. Those nations were added to the list when their Covid-19 infection rates were spiking in April.

The decision to lower Canada's status to "Reconsider Travel" came as encouraging news for those who want the border to reopen. 

"I'm very happy," said Sandy Pearce, founder of Families Are Essential, one of several groups of people separated from their loved ones by the border closure and lobbying for the border to reopen. "There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel."

But Pearce also said that the United States and Canada should add people traveling to see loved ones to the category of "essential travelers" allowed to cross immediately. "We're personally vaccinated, so there's no reason not to," she said.

Asked on Tuesday about whether the United States might take the same sort of phased approach to the border reopening that Canada is taking, White House press secretary Jen Psaki provided no new details.

"We would make a decision about the Canada border based on the guidance of our health and medical experts, and I'm sure that when that decision is made, we would communicate through diplomatic channels, but I don't have anything to predict about the timeline," Psaki said.

The U.S. and Canadian chambers of commerce – along with other business groups from both sides of the border – issued a letter to Trudeau on Tuesday, saying the border should be opened to vaccinated travelers on June 22, the day after the current restrictions expire.

“It would help facilitate a safe and gradual return to a more normal life," the business groups said.

Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, said the Biden administration should be providing more details about its plans to reopen the border.

“For months, families and homeowners have been left in the dark by this administration, even after the president signed an executive order on his second day calling for a plan" to reopen the border, Jacobs said. "It’s time for answers and action. The administration can no longer stall and refuse to provide information, Americans deserve to know what is being done to get the border open, and when it is going to happen."

In an attempt to force the administration to act, Jacobs on Tuesday introduced legislation that would require the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to produce a report within 30 days detailing its discussions about reopening the border – including its discussions with the Canadian government.

Jacobs' Northern Border Reopening Transparency Act has little chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled House, and the border might even be partially reopened within 30 days.

Nevertheless, Jacobs' move adds to the public pressure on the Biden administration to reopen the border. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, has been pushing for a reopening plan for months, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, did the same at a Niagara Falls news conference in early May.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York's North Country, the third-ranking Republican in the House, has called on the United States to open its side of the border unilaterally. Groups consisting of people who have been separated from their loved ones have been ramping up pressure for a reopening, too, as has John Adams, a Florida retiree with a home in Canada who has been buying television ads in both countries on the issue.

Jacobs said he hopes his bill – which Higgins is cosponsoring – will add to the momentum for a border reopening plan.

“Sixteen months of indefinite, arbitrary closures are unacceptable," he said. "Enough is enough. The president and his cabinet owe Congress, separated families, business owners and homeowners answers – this legislation is designed to get them.”

Higgins, meanwhile, said the Jacobs bill is designed to produce transparency from an administration that has "kept things pretty close to the vest" regarding the border. But behind the scenes, he said, the Biden team is likely preparing in detail for the border reopening.

Given that vaccinations are up and infections are down on both sides of the border, Higgins said he's hoping for a partial border reopening by June 21 and a fuller reopening shortly thereafter.

"I think you're going to see just a pretty dramatic change in a short period of time," he said.


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