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Jul. 21—While fully-vaccinated Americans can begin visiting Canada on Aug. 9, U.S. restrictions on nonessential Canadian travelers have been extended through Aug. 21.
The extension of the border closure, deemed necessary because of the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, was announced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on July 21, and published by the Office of the Federal Register. The register makes available a wide variety of public documents.
"Given the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of COVID-19 within the United States and globally, the secretary has determined that the risk of continued transmission and spread of the virus associated with COVID-19 between the United States and Canada poses an ongoing 'specific threat to human life or national interests,'" read a portion of the statement announcing the extension.
The announcement from DHS comes two days after the Canadian government said it would begin allowing vaccinated American travelers into the country on Aug. 9. U.S. and Canadian land border crossings have been closed since March 21, 2020, and re-upped every month since. The continued restrictions are set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 21, "unless amended or rescinded prior to that time."
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum called the continued border restrictions have "crossed the line from precautionary to preposterous."
"Canada's COVID-19 vaccination rate has surpassed our own, yet the Biden administration continues to stand in the way of a long-overdue reopening of the border with our closest ally and trading partner," Burgum said in a statement. "Even the co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus — a member of the president's own party — called this decision 'illogical' and noted that the administration has failed to deliver on its promise in January to provide a border reopening plan within 14 days."
Burgum added that "keeping the border closed to travelers won't substantially drive vaccination rates up, but it will continue to hold the economy down and hurt communities that depend on cross-border activity, including North Dakota's retail and tourism industries as well as friends and family members separated by border restrictions for more than 16 months."
Locally, some are taking a careful look at what may happen after the latest round of U.S. travel restrictions are set to expire. Julie Rygg, executive director of Visit Greater Grand Forks, noted the extensions have happened on a month-by-month basis for the last 16 months, and could be extended yet again. Still, she's guardedly hopeful Canadians could soon be visiting, in light of Canada's recent announcement.
"I'm very optimistic that as of (August) 21st it could happen, but yes, we're cautious after the last year and a half we've had," said Rygg.
Rygg said her office is working with Canadian advertising partners, in preparation of promoting the region. Visit Greater Grand Forks will use conventional advertising and social media to get the word out, and a welcome back campaign could feature posters set up about town, additional signage for interested businesses, and giveaway packages for shopping, hotel rooms and concert tickets.
"That's my dream," said Rygg, of the best-case scenario of an August return date for Canadians.
Barry Wilfahrt, president of the Greater Grand Forks Chamber, said he hopes rising vaccination rates inspire confidence in government leaders to reopen the border sooner, rather than later.
"Hopefully they make the decision to open the border, so the Canadians come back down to our community," Wilfahrt said. "We're obviously very anxious to see that happen."
A late August border opening, coupled with the return of students to UND and Grand Forks Public Schools, would play an important role in returning the region to normal, said Todd Feland, Grand Forks city administrator. Returning students who get jobs would add to the workforce at a time when, potentially, Canadian visitors return to the area.
"The thing we're really fighting right now is workforce," said Feland. "I think getting more people into the city, partnered with visitors coming in, will help our workforce so that we can serve more and more people that are going to be coming in and through Grand Forks."
The DHS order cited human-to-human transmission, along with the risk variants of the coronavirus pose to travelers and federal workers who staff border crossings, as a reason to extend travel restrictions.
Still, the DHS order wasn't all doom and gloom. The agency noted more than 59% of eligible Americans are fully-vaccinated, as of July 15. In June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downgraded Canada's COVID-19 level from "very high" to "high." According to Canada's COVID-19 Tracker, 51% of the country's population is also vaccinated. Those positive developments, DHS said, still require "significant safeguards."
In recent weeks federal lawmakers in North Dakota and Minnesota have been advocating for border restrictions to be eased, calling them punitive, and a disruption to business.
On Friday, July 16, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. joined a group of 13 other lawmakers in calling on President Biden to not extend the border closure beyond July 21.
"The Biden administration's decision to keep our northern border closed is a blow to our border communities," wrote Armstrong, in an email to the Herald. "I will continue to advocate for the reopening of important travel and commerce between the US and Canada."
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has also been a vocal proponent of easing border restrictions, and the benefits a return to normal travel would bring.
"More people visiting North Dakota would be a win for our small business community as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic," Cramer wrote in a previous email to the Herald. "Border restrictions between Canada and the United States should be eased to accommodate increased travel as quickly as possible."