OTTAWA — Canadians are waking up to a new reality today: the world’s longest undefended border is no longer open for routine, casual traffic between Canada and the United States.
The ban on non-essential cross-border travel went into effect at midnight ET and will stay in place for at least 30 days as both countries scramble to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19.
The ban applies to people wanting to cross the border for tourism or purely recreational purposes, like shopping.
It is not supposed to impede trade or essential travel, but what constitutes essential is not entirely clear and will doubtless lead to some confusion at border crossings.
Federal ministers were clear Friday that truckers, whom both countries rely upon to provide food, medical supplies and other essential goods, will not be blocked. Nor will health professionals or anyone else who must cross the border to work.
Students who hold valid visas, temporary foreign workers and anyone with valid work responsibilities also are to be allowed to cross.
However, it was less clear whether, for instance, visits to family members on the other side of the border will be allowed.
Asked about compassionate grounds for crossing, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said it will be up to Canadian and American border agents to “exercise the appropriate discretion” in determining “exceptional circumstances.”
“What we are all united in attempting to do is to discourage that travel which is clearly not essential, people that are engaged in tourist activities or recreational activities. We recognize the importance of workers getting to their important jobs,” he said.
“We recognize the importance of ensuring we maintain the supply in goods that comprise the vital trade and supply chains that cross our borders every day. At the same time, we recognize there will be extraordinary circumstances. Our expectation is that extraordinary matters will be dealt with in extraordinary ways.”
Businesses are nervously watching to see if trade is disrupted. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is urging both the Canadian and U.S. governments to keep a close eye on the border and act quickly if there are signs that people or shipments that need to get through are being turned away.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland appealed Friday for patience as border officials sort out the fine print of the ban on non-essential travel.
“As for the uncertainty at the border around the rules, I think all of us need to have a bit of patience and understanding about the current situation. These are extraordinary times. Our government … is acting at a pace which would be neither possible nor advisable in ordinary times,” she said.
“It means pretty much always every single detail is not going to be worked out in advance. I think people will agree, better to act with speed than to wait for the perfection which could mean that our country’s response to this global pandemic would be delayed with truly fatal consequences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2020.