March 21st will mark a full year that the Canada-U. S. border has been closed to all but essential traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Canada-U.S. border is the largest undefended boundary in the world at 8,891 kilometers. There are 117 legal points of entry that have been closed to tourist and personal, or “nonessential" travel, for almost a year, resulting in an 80% drop in border traffic.
For generations, travelers from both countries have easily crossed the border for vacations, shopping trips and other excursions. That all stopped last March with the spread of the coronavirus. The only exceptions are for immediate family, those in long-term relationships or for compassionate purposes.
Those crossing for essential work or to transport commercial goods are also exempt.
Suzanne Smith is in a unique position. She is the Canadian owner of “Betty Be Good," two dress shops located just across the border in Washington State. Her stores employ seven Americans full time. She lives on the Canadian side in suburban Vancouver, a mere two blocks from the border. Since the closure, her business has decreased 40%.
As an essential worker, she can cross the border and does so once or twice a week. However, she can only go directly to her two stores and literally nowhere else. Not even to a favorite eatery or to see her extended American family, unless they visit one of her stores.
“It's really difficult when you straddle two sides of a border with your life. You have restaurants that you enjoy. You have small businesses that you have supported over time. Things that become part of your life. And, you know, I have family there, as well. A lot of people are in that boat where they can't see their family. I'm not unique in that I can't see my family, either, unless they come to work,” Smith said.
On February 22, the Canadian government increased the requirements for Canadians, or permanent residents, who are nonessential travelers returning home by land. Now, those crossing the border must show a negative COVID-19 test within the previous 72 hours or proof they had the coronavirus in the previous 14 to 90 days, therefore having at least temporary antibody immunity. Travelers will then have to quarantine for 14 days.
Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, is hoping for a phased and safe reopening of the border.
“So, what I would like to see is testing out a pilot project. We've done that a lot in our region, and proving that it is possible for, let's say, me as a traveler to submit my vaccine status to a border officer before I arrived there and in a seamless electronic manner. And that that should be sufficient enough for me to cross the border,” Trautman said.
The Canadian government has also halted the 2021 Alaska cruise ship season.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimates that $718.4 billion in all types of trade crossed the U.S.-Canada border before the pandemic in 2019.