The southbound lanes on the road to North America’s post-pandemic recovery will finally reopen Monday as the United States ends nearly 20 months of controversial COVID-19 exile and allows fully vaccinated travellers to cross the Canada-U.S. land border.
As of midnight, non-essential traffic will resume moving in both directions for the first time since March 2020, when both countries imposed sweeping but selective restrictions in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus — the first widespread border closure since the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
After nearly two years, however, the excitement isn’t exactly palpable.
“We’re on the other side of this, hopefully, but if the border were to ever close again, they really need to realize that families are essential,” said Kim Patchett, who lives with her husband Barry in Saugeen Shores, Ont., west of Owen Sound on the shores of Lake Huron.
Travelling to Philadelphia to visit daughter Kaity, her American son-in-law Jesse and three-year-old granddaughter Ilsa — a routine endeavour in the before times, costing just $80 for a tank of diesel fuel — has been an expensive and frustrating ordeal since the restrictions were imposed.
The couple made the trip twice, including once by air last Christmas, and then again in September for Ilsa’s third birthday. For that trip, they hired a helicopter to cross the border and a car-carrier service to deliver their SUV to American soil before driving the rest of the way.
Then there’s the Canadian requirement that all travellers submit the results of a recent PCR test to prove they aren’t sick, an expense that in Canada can run anywhere from $150-$300 per person.
All told, Patchett figures they’ve spent $6,000 on trips that would normally only have set them back $320.
“We were there to be able to lend a hand, to give an actual personal hug, you know? To just sit and listen or to play, and you can’t do those things over FaceTime.”
They’ll travel again for U.S. Thanksgiving later this month, when — as the rules stand now — they’ll need to spend another $500 on tests in order to get back into Canada.
“It’s very frustrating,” Patchett said.
“Do you want to hug your children? Do you want to tuck your grandchildren into bed? Do you want to sit and do a puzzle on the floor with them, run around the house and make a lot of noise? These are things that literally were taken away from us.”
Before COVID-19, Joelle Deslippe, who lives in Windsor, Ont., bought a vacation property in Michigan as a midway gathering place so she wouldn’t have to make the full five-hour drive when she wanted to visit her family in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
That cottage, which is suspended in a state of partial renovation, has been sitting largely untended and exposed to the elements — and Deslippe is terrified of what she might find when she finally heads back on Day 1.
”I’m really scared to go back and see how much additional repairs we’re going to have to do now,” she said. “It’s been 20 months of anxiety.”
Patchett and Deslippe are both members of “Families are Essential,” one of several grassroots activist groups that erupted on social media over the course of the pandemic as it became clear that the land-border restrictions weren’t going away anytime soon.
The cause has evolved quickly. At first, it targeted both Washington and the federal government in Ottawa, then set its sights mainly on the White House and members of Congress when Canada began allowing fully vaccinated visitors again in August.
At its peak, it included fevered letter-writing campaigns, a deluge of social-media testimonials and even crowdfunded, U.S.-style “attack ads” that likened the restrictions to the Iran hostage crisis.
As soon as the U.S. announced fully vaccinated travellers would be allowed back across the land border with only proof of vaccination to accompany their passports, the focus shifted again — this time to the molecular COVID-19 test that Canada still requires, which runs $150-$300 per swab.
Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, indicated early Friday that Ottawa is well aware of the drawbacks and “we are looking at that quite carefully.” As if on cue, however, the Canada Border Services Agency followed up with a pointed reminder that the test remains a necessary step.
Not only is the expense discouraging people from travelling, it’s a self-defeating measure that does little to improve public safety, said Perrin Beatty, a former federal cabinet minister who now serves as CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“It just makes no sense,” Beatty said in an interview.
He pointed to the federal government’s own rule that says if a trip to the U.S. will be less than 72 hours long, travellers can get their test done in Canada before they leave and use the same results when returning to the country.
“Who is protected by that? All this does is to waste money and waste people’s time.”
It also creates what Beatty calls “friction” along a border where people are supposed to be able to cross freely, “but where the cost and administrative hassle is so great that people just give up.”
“The friction has essentially meant that the gains that the Canadian tourism sector were hoping to achieve when Canada opened the borders to people coming north just never materialized,” he said.
New York congressman Brian Higgins, one of the earliest champions of easing the restrictions once the COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, will hold a news conference Monday alongside mayors and community leaders from both sides of the border to urge Canada to drop the requirement.
Not everyone who plans to take advantage of the new rules is complaining, however.
Throughout the pandemic, Betty Chaborek, who also lives in Windsor, has watched in envy for months as long lines of tractor-trailer trucks snaked across the land border via the Ambassador Bridge. Trade and commercial activity have been allowed to continue since the outset.
Chaborek used to drive over to Michigan to visit her daughter, her son-in-law and their two children almost every weekend before the global health crisis began.
As she prepares to make the trip next Friday, she said she “can’t wait” to resume a long-standing family tradition.
“I’m very, very excited to go,” Chaborek said in a phone interview. “Now I’m wondering if we should talk about having (American) Thanksgiving early over there.”
— With files from Noushin Ziafati in Toronto
James McCarten, The Canadian Press