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Vaccinations are picking up. Is it time to reopen the US-Canada border?

The United States and Canada have one of the largest economic partnerships in the world, and share the world’s largest international border. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, that border was closed to all nonessential traffic. As more people on both sides of the border get vaccinated, some are calling for it to re-open. Special Correspondent Benedict Moran reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The United States and Canada have one of the largest economic partnerships in the world, with trade in a typical year worth $2 billion dollars a day.

    They also share the world's longest international border. But in early 2020, as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, that border was closed to all nonessential traffic and remains closed to personal travel to this day.

    But with more people getting vaccinated on both sides of the border, some are calling for it to re-open.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Benedict Moran reports.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Jonathan Azzopardi is the CEO of Laval, a Canadian manufacturer based near Windsor, Ontario.

  • Jonathan Azzopardi:

    How is it running Abe? Is it running ok?

  • Benedict Moran:

    Laval makes parts for hospital beds and components for self-driving cars, but mostly, they make molds.

  • Jonathan Azzopardi:

    That means taking a 25,000 lb piece of steel like this and turning it into a mold, like this, which can sell for more than a million dollars. This part here is a side of a truck, but it could be anything. This part takes about six months to make. About 6,000 hours to make.

  • Benedict Moran:

    It's a painstaking process that requires a constant back-and-forth between Azzopardi's factory in Canada, and engineers from American car manufacturers across the river in Detroit. But since March last year, the border has been partially closed, a decision taken by both American and Canadian Governments to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from essential workers like truck drivers, medical workers, and others who regularly cross the border, Canada is off limits to temporary visits.

    So, while truck traffic is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, travel considered non-essential is down more than 90%, blocking many people Azzopardi says are crucial to his supply-chain.

  • Jonathan Azzopardi:

    The movement of goods necessitates the movement of people. Americans coming here to sign off on the product. But also Canadians going there to commission the product. With all the restrictions, it's basically stopped people from crossing the border, it's made it almost impossible.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Azzopardi says more people should be allowed to cross.

  • Jonathan Azzopardi:

    I'm very worried. We have actually lost about 30% of our business already. My clients are from the US. For them to be able to sign off on a product, if they can't do that, they're not going to give us the business. They're going to source that in the United States. Or worse, they'll source it to China.

  • Benedict Moran:

    With vaccinations in the US progressing at a record pace, many are calling for the border to partially re-open.

  • Chuck Schumer:

    We have to find a way to safely, safely open the border ASAP.

  • Benedict Moran:

    But leaders in Canada don't see eye-to-eye on when that should happen. Canada is in the midst of a third wave. Infection rates are nearly double that of the US.

  • Justin Trudeau:

    This is not the right time to travel. On land borders, as a reminder: anyone who comes to the US land border has already been tested in the US in the last 3 days. Then, they have to get tested again and everyone has to quarantine for 2 weeks and do another test on day 8. We're enforcing very severe consequences for anyone breaking these rules.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently came under political pressure to restrict the border even further, seen in this ad from Ontario's conservative leader Doug Ford.

  • Doug Ford:

    Trudeau didn't close the border when the pandemic started. He didn't close the borders when it got worse.

  • Benedict Moran:

    According to an April poll, most Canadians support a total ban on international travel. That may be because last year, the US was slow to respond to the pandemic, and infections there at first, soared.

    Bill Anderson of the cross-border institute at the University of Windsor.

  • Bill Anderson:

    I think early in this pandemic, there was a public perception that Canada was being very responsible and the United States was not being responsible at all. I think there was this fear that Americans coming into Canada would make it so that our infection rates were comparable to their infection rates. Now, of course, we're well into this thing, and the infection rates right here are very high right now in Canada.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Now, despite the border closure, infection rates in Canada are higher than the US. And the country has lagged behind with vaccinations: 34% of Canadians have received one dose, but only 3% are fully vaccinated. So while the US is reopening, lockdowns in Canada have gotten even stricter.

    Last month, the government of Ontario also prohibited non-essential travel, setting up checkpoints at the borders with neighboring Quebec and Manitoba. So talk of re-opening Canada's international borders has taken a backseat. The border closure has also impacted friends and families. The US and Canada share the world's longest international border. Much of it is unguarded, and looks like this. But it also runs right through many communities. Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec are effectively one town. The border is only marked by stones. It traverses lawns, this home's chimney, and even goes right through the town library.

  • Benedict Moran:

    This is Canusa Road, for 'Canada' – 'USA.' On this side of the road is Canada, and on the other, is the United States. There are no checkpoints dividing the two areas. And it shows that in these communities, the border is more of an idea, than a physical barrier.

    With the border closed, Stanstead and Derby Line have been ripped in half.

  • Robin Smith:

    I have not seen you in…

  • Benedict Moran:

    Robin Smith is visiting a friend she hasn't seen in more than a year.

    Smith stays in Quebec, socially distanced from Scott Wheeler, who is standing six feet away in Vermont.

  • Scott Wheeler:

    They should let me go. I'm fully vaccinated now.

  • Robin Smith:

    You're vaccinated? I'm jealous, I have to wait until August.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Historically, there was no physical border here. That changed after 9/11, when security upgrades required residents to cross at official border crossings about a mile away. Typically, many residents still regularly crossed, relying on the other respective side for shopping, entertainment, or seeing friends and family. Since COVID-19, that's no longer possible. Smith used to live in the US, while her family was in Canada.

  • Robin Smith:

    Before Covid? I drove over once or twice a day. I made supper for my parents. My sister lives with my parents. She is handicapped. So it's like a close family. My other sister helps. We do things together. And, you know, we were totally cut off.

  • Benedict Moran:

    When the border closed, she moved to Canada to be with her parents. But she's eager to get her old life back in the US.

  • Robin Smith:

    I want it to open again. I mean, that's all I want to go. I work for an American company and because I live with elderly parents, it's not that easy. I can't really do my job properly, I can't go over and work. I can't go and get my mail. I can't go see my friends.

  • Benedict Moran:

    What many are advocating is a system that allows vaccinated Americans and Canadians to cross the border. With infection rates in parts of Canada on par or surpassing infection rates in the United States, they say vaccinated Americans pose less of a risk than Canadians, traveling from hotspots within their own country.

    One proposal is to use a digital vaccine passport or an already-existing trusted traveler programs like Nexus, to verify vaccine coverage. Ideas welcomed by Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati.

  • Jim Diodati:

    It's been devastating and eerie to come down to this area and to see no people.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Niagara Falls, Ontario normally welcomes some 13million visitors a year, and the town relies heavily on tourism revenue. Today, the streets are empty.

  • Jim Diodati:

    Forty thousand people need tourism to be successful, to put food on the table. So it's not an option, we have to have this season.

  • Benedict Moran:

    In a typical year, millions of American tourists would come to Niagara falls. They make up about 25% of Niagara's tourist population. But they spend a lot of money, and bring in about 50% of Niagara tourist revenue. While tourist attractions like ferries are operating on the US side, Canada's boats are mothballed.

  • Jim Diodati:

    This has been for over a year. It's been devastating. My suggestion is, you know, we're going to open. We just don't know exactly when. So let's come up with our phased in plan for opening the border. And if it means you have to have a vaccine passport, so be it.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Vaccine aid might also be a solution. North Dakota is now offering free vaccines for truck drivers who transport goods across their border from Canada. Alaska is also sharing. Some are pushing for that aid to be even more widespread.

    Brian Higgins is the co-chair of the congressional northern border caucus.

  • Brian Higgins:

    There's a reason why there is a particular problem in Canada today. They don't make vaccines. They are totally dependent on external influences to get the one thing they could address this problem. So we in the United States are sharing vaccines. We can share more.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Within the first few days in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the US to collaborate with the Canadian Government to develop health and safety measures needed to re-open. Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland also announced more than $400 million for a plan to reopen the border. But still, no plan, and no timeline, has been announced.

    Back at Laval's factory floor, Azzopardi hopes for an announcement that border restrictions will ease.

  • Jonathan Azzopardi:

    Windsor lives and dies by the US economy. And right now the US economy is doing very good. Covid has put a halt on a lot of things but Americans are still buying. Windsor depends on that. Not just Windsor, southern Ontario depends on that. And right now, we are being left out.

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