How Much Longer Will the Border Stay Shut?

By Ian Austen

The March 21 closure of the Canada-U. S. border has led to a drastic downturn in traffic and speculation about what will happen when the shutdown is set to expire.

Ian Austen

This week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have resolved some of the concerns Canada Letter readers have raised in emails about the border closing with the United States. A tweak to its rules now means that married and common law couples who had found themselves unable to reunite if they weren’t both Canadian citizens can now do so.

ImageThe border in Lansdowne, Ontario, in March.
The border in Lansdowne, Ontario, in March.Credit...Lars Hagberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The changes allow immediate family members who are not Canadian to enter Canada to join relatives. But they won’t be able to pop in for quick visits. Instead they must stay for a minimum of 15 days and quarantine for the first 14.

This is the first time since Canada became a nation that the entire border has been shut down by both countries, although there have been instances of specific crossings being closed. Even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks didn’t close the border.

Still unclear, however, is an issue that many of you have raised: When will the border reopen?

The border closing has been extended several times since it took effect March 21 and is now set to expire, or get extended, on June 21.

The press secretary for Chrystia Freeland, who as deputy prime minister is in charge of all things between Canada and the United States, declined to tell me what would be announced about its future or even when an announcement would be made. But she did confirm that the two countries were discussing the issue.

The closing has reduced traffic by individuals between the two countries to a trickle. The number of Canadians returning to Canada from the United States last month was down 95 percent from a year earlier, according to Statistics Canada. Just 2,500 Americans arrived by car in Quebec during May, compared to 119,300 a year earlier.

One family celebrated Mother’s Day in Langley, British Columbia, across the Canada-U.S. border.Credit...Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters

Temporary foreign workers have been allowed in to work on farms. Several of those migrant workers became ill after arriving at Ontario farms, a situation that labor groups attribute to crowded dormitory housing and poor workplace virus protection. Two of them, both from Mexico, have died.

And, of course, anyone with Canadian citizenship cannot be turned away, although they must quarantine for 14 days on returning or face a potential 750,000 Canadian dollar penalty and six months in jail.

Beyond that, getting across the border involves convincing the Canada Border Service Agency that your trip is both “essential” and “non-discretionary and nonoptional.” The border agency defines that kind of travel largely by what it is not: “tourism, recreation or entertainment.”

So if you have a summer property up here or friends and distant relations you’d like to see in person, you’re out of luck until the closing is lifted.

A Canadian tourism industry related group has started a campaign to “re-open borders to safe countries” and to examine “the efficacy of restrictions on non-essential travel from the United States.” Premier Jason Kenney in Alberta asked Ottawa to ease the rules to allow the N.H.L. to use arenas in his province to create a playing hub for hockey.

But he and those calling for reopening do not reflect the general mood of the nation. The premiers of Ontario and British Columbia have not been enthusiastic about the idea.

Only 14 percent of Canadians want to see the border reopened by the end of July, while 51 percent said it should not be reopened until the end of the year, according to a survey released this week by Association for Canadian Studies’ Covid-19 Social Impacts Network, an academic research organization.

The U.S. border crossing south of Lacolle, Quebec.Credit...Christinne Muschi/Reuters

I sought an expert opinion from Gerald A. Evans, a professor of medicine at Queens University and the medical director for infection prevention and control at the health sciences center in Kingston, Ontario. He’s concerned that moving too quickly will lead to a rise in the rate of infections.

“This does have to be done with a great deal of care,” he said. Noting that Canada’s ability to track and trace sources of infection is inadequate, Dr. Evans added: “My worry is the ability that we have to carefully monitor it.”

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“In many ways I think Canada has done a better job than the States, I’ll say that quite overtly,” he said. But the rising rate of infections in a number of states that have eased social distancing “portends badly for the possibility that of a reintroduction of virus into Canada,” he said.

More than 500 epidemiologists, including some in Canada, were surveyed by my colleagues Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui about when they expect to restart 20 daily activities in their own lives. When asked when they anticipate traveling by air again — the closest thing to a border question — their consensus was not until later in the next year.

[Read: When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again]

Sterly Lucien, 30, a Haitian asylum-seeker, in Montreal North.Credit...Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times
  • Canadian immigration officials said the federal government may allow caregivers who are seeking asylum to essentially jump the immigration queue and remain in the country permanently because of their outsized contributions to fighting the pandemic.

  • A police dash cam video showing Allan Adam, an Indigenous chief from Alberta, being tackled to the ground by a police officer, punched in the head and put in a chokehold before being handcuffed and put in a cruiser has horrified many Canadians, and is likely to add more fire to the debate and protests about systemic racism in police forces across Canada.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hair has long been a subject of both admiration and ridicule. But three months into the coronavirus pandemic, as he has appeared day after day at televised briefings to answer questions — and sweep the bangs off his face — commenting on Mr. Trudeau’s ever longer mane has become a sport for some.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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