Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a press conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 18, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

In an unprecedented move, Canada and the United States are closing the world’s longest undefended border to non-essential travel to try and avoid the worst impacts of the coronavirus as it continues to grip Europe.

Critically, the partial border closing will not affect the movement of essential goods and workers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump said in separate news conferences Wednesday. The decision comes two days after Canada closed its borders to other foreigners and as the latest numbers show more and more cases here are linked to travel south of the border.

The two countries are still finalizing details on who and what will qualify as essential. The governments haven’t said when the partial travel ban will come into effect, but Mr. Trudeau said it would be done “very quickly.”

Travel for tourism and recreation will not be allowed, the Prime Minister said. However, he sought to reassure businesses and individuals that essential travel will continue and supply chains “will not be affected.”

Trudeau unveils $27-billion in aid, $55-billion of tax deferrals in coronavirus response

Follow the latest coronavirus news

Mr. Trump, though, left the door open to a shutting down of cross-border commerce, saying there would be no restrictions on trade “at this moment.”

In response, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said there is “absolute agreement” to keep the border open and protect the $2.7-billion in daily trade that is “essential to the economies and well-being of both Canadians and Americans.”

The new rules are expected to last for at least 30 days.

Also under the umbrella of essential travel will be travel for medical reasons and binational military co-operation, Mr. Trump said.

Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at Washington’s Wilson Center think tank, said there has never been a border closing between Canada and the U.S. like this before. The closest analogy was on Sept. 11, 2001. In that case, crossings closed for up to 20 minutes and the main problem was the days-long backlog it created.

“Now, we’re talking about a restriction that’s border-wide. … It’s a different order of magnitude.” he said.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said essential workers can take precautions to protect their health. When travelling, “act like you already have it,” she said, and if you do get sick, even with mild symptoms, stay home.

On Monday, Canada announced it was closing the border to non-citizens, with the exception of permanent residents, Americans and a few other categories. At the time, Mr. Trudeau said the exception for Americans was made because of the intertwined economies.

Mr. Trudeau said the decision was made after negotiations between the two leaders as well as talks between Ms. Freeland, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

British Columbia, which had previously called for the partial ban, and several other provinces welcomed the deal.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce agreed that the exchange of goods needed to continue, and called on Ottawa to keep open lines of communication with businesses.

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, said Mr. Trudeau appeared to have got the best deal possible to fight the pandemic without compromising trade or angering Mr. Trump.

”To be able to thread that needle is difficult and, at least at this point in time, it looks like the Prime Minister has successfully done that," Mr. Heyman said. He noted the logistical challenge ahead. Under normal circumstances, about 400,000 people cross at the 120 border crossings each day. Given the wide discretion border guards already have in enforcing the rules, he said, it is possible some points of entry may be easier to get through.

Which workers will be considered essential is still a grey area, he said. For example, does a machine repair person qualify if the work is for an essential manufacturer? Those details and the circumstances of people who may have spouses on the other side of the border have not yet been worked out.

Daniel Ujczo, an Ohio-based trade lawyer with clients in both countries, said companies that regularly ship across the border likely will not see significant disruption, thanks to measures adopted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Three post-9/11 programs – Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, Partners in Protection and Free and Secure Trade – allowed companies to get security clearances and background checks, and register with the governments, showing they have legitimate reasons to cross.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe