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PM: Canada will ease border restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers, eventually

PM: Canada will ease border restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers, eventually

WASHINGTON — Canada will indeed be taking steps to ease restrictions at the border for fully vaccinated travellers, Justin Trudeau said Tuesday — he just won’t say when.

With Canada-U.S. travel restrictions set to expire in just two weeks and pressure mounting on the federal government to avoid yet another 30-day renewal, the prime minister offered only the barest hint of hope that things could change by June 21.

“We are looking at how we can ease the rules, based on science,” for would-be travellers who have had a complete course of a COVID-19 vaccine, Trudeau said in French during a news conference in Ottawa.

“We will have more announcements to make regarding measures that may be eased for those who have had both doses in the weeks to come.”

Despite a slow start, Canada has been setting a blistering pace of late when it comes to vaccination: as of Monday, more than 62 per cent of Canadians had received at least one dose, and about eight per cent — more than three million people — are fully vaccinated.

That latter figure may pale in comparison to the 42 per cent of Americans who have received both doses, but it represents a marked improvement over the 4.5 per cent of just three weeks ago.

Still, there’s a long way to go, Trudeau said — especially considering the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 variants of concern and their potential trajectories.

“Even though one dose has allowed us to significantly protect Canadians, to remove many of the pressures from our public health systems, it is still an incomplete protection and we need people to get the full two doses of their vaccines,” he said.

“That’s why easing restrictions will be focused on Canadians who are fully vaccinated.”

Speculation has been rampant in recent days that the U.S. may be preparing to go it alone with plans to relax the border restrictions before June 21, regardless of whether Canada is ready to reciprocate.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki did little to suggest otherwise Tuesday.

“We would make a decision about the Canada border based on the guidance of our health and medical experts,” Psaki said when asked if the U.S. would take a unilateral approach.

“I’m sure that when that decision is made, we would communicate through diplomatic channels, but I don’t have anything to predict about the timeline.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has also faced increasing demands to reopen the border, from rank-and-file lawmakers like New York Democrat Rep. Brian Higgins and Republican counterpart Rep. Chris Jacobs, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Much of that pressure has emanated from northern border states and community and business leaders located near the frontier, where small businesses and family livelihoods are utterly dependent on a regular flow of traffic between the two countries.

But last week, two Liberal MPs — Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Wayne Easter, co-chairman of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, a bilateral committee of lawmakers and MPs — joined forces with Higgins to echo his call for a new approach.

On Tuesday, Higgins expressed confidence that a breakthrough was drawing nearer.

“It is clearly the beginning of the end of the border shutdown,” he said in a statement that also pointed to a newly revised State Department travel advisory, moving Canada from Level 4 “Do Not Travel” status to the less alarming “Reconsider.”

“In conversations with government leaders on both sides of the border we are learning plans are moving forward to provide for expanded crossing allowances. Action is long overdue.”

Canadian and U.S. business leaders also banded together Tuesday, issuing a fresh appeal to the federal government to start putting plans in place. First on their wish list: let fully vaccinated travellers in without a pre-departure COVID-19 test or quarantine requirements upon arrival.

“In our view, the vaccination campaigns in both countries have progressed to the point where it is time to revisit” the restrictions, said the group, which includes both the Canadian and U.S. chambers of commerce, the Business Council of Canada and the U.S.-based National Retail Federation.

Doing so, they said, “would sustain jobs, boost business confidence and allow more families to reunite. It would help facilitate a safe and gradual return to a more normal life.”

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada was also sounding alarm bells Tuesday, warning of the risk that some of its members may be forced out of business if the restrictions eat into another summer travel season.

“There is a lack of urgency on the Canadian side for planning for the inevitable reopening of the border, which has been out of step with U.S. officials and the Biden administration,” president and CEO Beth Potter said in a statement.

“President Biden formally asked for a border reopening plan immediately after taking office, and so far, Canada has been slow to make any public progress.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2021.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

James McCarten, The Canadian Press