OTTAWA — Top Canadian and American envoys insisted Friday the countries remain committed to a coordinated easing of Covid-19 border restrictions — even if they're moving at different speeds.
The diplomats’ arguments capped a week in which the Biden administration renewed its restrictions at U.S.-Canada land crossings until at least Aug. 21.
The Trudeau government has announced it will begin allowing fully vaccinated Americans to enter Canada for discretionary travel on Aug. 9.
“There’s been an enormous amount of information sharing and coordination and there continues to be,” Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., told a webcast hosted by the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute. “But coordination doesn’t mean you’re going to do exactly the same thing and, indeed, since the very beginning we haven’t been doing the same thing.”
The countries put the restrictions in place in March 2020 to slow Covid-19. But as vaccination rates rise, families separated from loved ones, business leaders and lawmakers have been calling on the governments to reopen the land crossings to nonessential travel.
The border vow: Hillman’s comment was in response to the moderator’s question. “Is this a coordinated move because it looks a little like Canada is ahead of the U.S. here?” asked moderator Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden promised in their February “road map” to take a “coordinated approach” on lifting public-health restrictions at the frontier.
The conversations: Hillman noted that throughout the pandemic, American rules have permitted Canadians to fly to the U.S., while Canada has restricted land border travel and flights.
“Coordination is about sharing information, it’s about making sure where we can implement in a manner that is as smooth as possible. We’re doing so,” she said. “But we both are also committed to making decisions based on science and the advice of experts, and those are our experts. Our science, our experts, our country, what is happening for us on the ground. And the U.S. is doing the same.”
Arnold Chacon, interim chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, told the event he agreed with Hillman’s comments and added that cross-border consultations are still underway.
“We continue to review our travel restrictions and any decision about reopening travel is going to be guided by our public health and medical experts,” Chacon said. “We take this very, very seriously, but I think we’re in a good place and the trajectory is very promising.”
The push back: This week’s U.S. border decision frustrated American lawmakers and business leaders who have been calling for a quicker reopening.
Perrin Beatty, the president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, specifically referenced the Biden-Trudeau pledge in their February road map.
“Less than five months later, Washington appears to have lost its copy,” Beatty said in a statement. “It’s hard to see how allowing fully vaccinated Canadians to enter the U.S. poses a public health threat when travel within the U.S. is unrestricted. … Canada’s government must press the U.S. administration to reverse its policy.”
The U.S. explanation: The Biden administration said its decision to extend the measures was due to the continued transmission and spread of Covid within the U.S. and globally. The Department of Homeland Security also referred to the Delta variant as a factor.
What's next: White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden receives regular briefings from working groups that are exploring how to reopen the U.S. to international travel, not just for tourism but to reunite families.
Psaki also took a question on what can be learned from Canada, where after a slow start the vaccination rate has climbed past the U.S. More than 60 percent of eligible Canadians are now fully vaccinated, compared to around 50 percent in the U.S.
With Canadian numbers expected to move even higher, the White House may hear more about the cross-border vaccine comparisons.
"First, I would say 162 million Americans are now vaccinated," Psaki said. "That certainly is a positive step. We're the first to say — and we have long said — that that's not enough. We need to ensure more people and more communities are vaccinated."
Psaki added that the U.S. is the world's largest provider of vaccines to the global community.