New York congressman Higgins urges Canada to drop COVID-19 travel test before Nov. 8

When the United States resumes letting fully vaccinated, non-essential North American visitors back across its land borders Nov. 8, border guards won't be asking for proof of a negative COVID-19 test -- and one New York congressman wants Canada to return the favour.

Rep. Brian Higgins, whose relentless campaign against the Biden administration's travel restrictions has made him known north of the border, said the $200 test, known as a molecular or PCR test, remains a barrier to the routine bilateral travel so vital to his region's economy.

"I think that the U.S. decision to allow Canadians coming into the United States without a test again underscores the potency of the vaccine," Higgins said in an interview Friday.

"I would like to see that reciprocated by our Canadian neighbours."

The Nov. 8 start date announced Friday by the White House comes a full three months after Canada initially began allowing fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents back across the border in August.

"It will be what we make of it, and I'm happy that people can now be reunited with loved ones and all those other issues," Higgins said.

"But the fact of the matter is, the U.S. border to our Canadian neighbours should have been opened months ago."

A Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a policy not yet made public, said the White House expects Canadians who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was never approved for use in the U.S., will be eligible to enter the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently working on the operational details, such as what will constitute acceptable proof of vaccination and which "very limited" exceptions might be allowed, the official said.

Vaccines approved by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization are considered acceptable for international air travellers, and "we anticipate the same will be true at the land border," the official added.

Still to be answered, however, was the burning question of whether those roughly four million Canadians who received doses of two different vaccines would be considered fully vaccinated -- an issue the Centers for Disease Control is still actively investigating.

"The prospect of millions of Canadian travellers being indefinitely denied access to the United States … is deeply concerning," Higgins wrote to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a letter released Friday.

"Our livelihoods and way of life depend on the free flow of goods, services and people across the border -- often multiple times per day."

The U.S. Travel Association has estimated the Mexican and Canadian border closures have been costing American businesses $1.5 billion in travel exports -- domestic spending by foreign visitors -- every month.

Political pressure is also mounting on the federal government in Ottawa to provide some answers.

"The need for your government to provide clarity is more pressing than ever," Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said Friday in a letter of her own to Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

"I'm writing today to request … that you ensure that Canadians with mixed vaccination status will be recognized in the United States before the Nov. 8 reopening."

As for the test requirement, public health officials in Canada made it clear Friday it's not going away any time soon.

"We're in a situation in Canada where our health systems are still very fragile," said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer.

"We need to still be very vigilant and careful at this point, but we will have ongoing discussions with the CDC and the United States to see what is reasonable in the trajectory going forward."

The White House has never explained publicly why it waited three months after Canada began relaxing its restrictions. Speculation focused on a desire to open both land borders at the same time, something a burgeoning immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border made politically difficult.

"Canada shouldn't have had to wait for Mexico," said Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the D.C.-based Canadian American Business Council.

"The science, the politics, the policy, the reality -- none of that would lead you to say, 'Let's do these things in tandem.' What would be better to do in tandem is Canada and the U.S. work in tandem across our common border, and Mexico and the U.S. work in tandem across that border. That makes some sense."

Higgins agreed, noting that the U.S. is letting vaccinated travellers in Mexico enter the country even though only 38.5 per cent of that country's population is fully vaccinated.

"This whole argument that, 'We have to wait until we achieve a higher rate of vaccination,' is thrown out the window," he said.

"The U.S. federal government proved my point on that -- they're saying, 'Hey, look, we'd like to have more Mexicans as a percentage of the adult population vaccinated, but if they're vaccinated, they're safe."

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland demurred Thursday when asked whether in the future, Canada would press its case for the U.S. to use separate and distinct policy approaches to its northern and southern borders.

"I think that we need to be respectful of every other country's sovereign decisions around its borders, and of every other country's sovereign right to manage its borders as it sees fit," Freeland said.

"Having said that, I think it's also worth pointing out that Canada has a very effective, very close partnership with the United States, as we should."

Since the dawn of the NAFTA age 25 years ago, the U.S. has tended to see its two frontiers through an economic lens -- and in that context, they are more similar than most Canadians realize, said Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor.

"People have the idea that in Mexico, what you've got is a whole bunch of people trying to get across the border illegally, and maybe you have some imports and exports of tomatoes and tequila. That's not it," Anderson said.

"It's very similar (to Canada) in terms of the ports of entry. A lot of business people are crossing on a regular basis too, and of course, there's a lot of crossing for tourism, there's a lot of family crossings -- the volume of people crossing legally is huge there as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa