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The United States border will reopen to non-essential travel in November to fully vaccinated Canadians after a record long closure due to concerns over COVID-19.

Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press

The United States is opening its land border to fully vaccinated Canadians in early November after 19 months of refusing entry to those not travelling for essential purposes, but it is not yet clear whether people who received mixed vaccine doses will be permitted to make the crossing.

Canada and the U.S. imposed restrictions on border crossings in March, 2020, as the virus was beginning to spread in North America. This past August, Canada adjusted its border controls to allow fully vaccinated Americans to enter the country, but the U.S. did not immediately reciprocate.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a news release Wednesday that the decision to open the American border was based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and that travellers would be required to show proof of vaccination. The loosened restrictions will also apply to ferry crossings, he said.

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He did not say exactly when the new rules would take effect.

Mr. Mayorkas said the U.S. will also open its southern border to fully vaccinated Mexicans.

“Cross-border travel creates significant economic activity in our border communities and benefits our broader economy. We are pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

The obligation to be fully vaccinated when travelling to the U.S. by land mirrors a similar recently announced rule for air travellers entering the country. That rule will take effect in early November. (Air travellers entering the U.S. are currently only required to present a negative COVID-19 test result.)

Canada’s travel restrictions for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, explained

Mr. Mayorkas’s announcement did not make clear whether U.S. border officials will recognize Canadians who have received mixed vaccine doses from two different manufacturers – for example, a dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, followed by a dose of Moderna. More than 3.9 million Canadians have received mixed doses, according to data from Health Canada. The U.S. CDC has not yet released guidance on whether it considers a mixed-dose regimen effective.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty told The Globe that it’s incumbent on the Canadian government to resolve this uncertainty. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received mixed doses, he noted, and in February Canada and the U.S. promised a co-ordinated approach to easing border controls.

He added that a national vaccine passport, which Ottawa first promised this past summer, is now urgently needed to facilitate international travel. “What we need now is secure digital certification which is not easily counterfeited and will include your vaccination history and is machine-readable,” he said.

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CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund could not immediately say on Wednesday whether the U.S. public-health agency would accept mixed-dose travellers as fully vaccinated.

“When I have an update on this, I’ll let you know,” she said.

Andrew McKendrick, a spokesperson for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, said Canada is working on the mixed-doses matter.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with our partners, both with the U.S. and globally with organizations like the WHO, when it comes to vaccine data and information sharing, to provide the evidence needed in recognizing Canada’s vaccine schedules. Conversations on this front remain ongoing with officials,” he said.

Mr. Mayorkas said that in January, 2022, the U.S. will extend its proof-of-vaccination requirement to essential travellers – such as truckers, students and health care workers.

“This new travel system will create consistent, stringent protocols for all foreign nationals travelling to the United States – whether by air, land or ferry,” he said.

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Mike Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, a border city in Ontario, said Wednesday that he believes Canadians will be cautious about driving south for day trips, given that parts of the U.S. have looser public-health measures and higher COVID-19 case counts than some Canadian jurisdictions.

“I do not see a lot of people wanting to go over day tripping for some time to come because of what’s happening in places like Michigan and elsewhere, where there are no restrictions on masking and gathering and things like that,” he said.

In a statement, Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair hailed the announcement as “one more step toward returning to normal,” but said it’s important to remember the pandemic is continuing.

Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an interview that he wonders if this will be a durable reopening, considering the fact that the pandemic is by no means over.

The average daily rate of new COVID-19 cases has declined in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, but winter weather will drive more people indoors and likely cause infection rates to rise.

Mr. Sands said the U.S. government should communicate its conditions for changing border restrictions so travellers can plan ahead. “Without that, the new U.S. policy creates uncertainty and a risk that border restrictions, like mask mandates, may come and go, and even return.”

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The Chamber of Commerce’s Mr. Beatty said Canada should consider relaxing its strict COVID-19 test standards for travellers. He noted that the molecular tests Canada demands for those entering the country are among the most expensive tests available. “What family is going to take a day trip across the border and pay $250 apiece for tests?” he asked. “No wonder we haven’t seen cross-border travel picking up since we reopened the border.”

Mr. Beatty also urged Canada to scrap its general do-not-travel advisories in favour of specific travel advice about COVID-19 conditions in various countries. As recently as the week before Thanksgiving, Ms. Hajdu was advising Canadians to avoid all unnecessary travel.

“We are past the stay-home-or-you-will-die stage, because we now have vaccines and we know how the disease spreads,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday that some of the details related to the border policy are still being discussed.

“We are working to clarify and finalize all the details with our American partners,” she said.

While speaking with reporters in Washington, where she is attending meetings of the G20 and the International Monetary Fund, Ms. Freeland was asked whether the border reopening conflicts with the Canadian government’s continuing advisory to avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada.

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The minister responded by paraphrasing what she called “really good advice” from Eileen de Villa, the Medical Officer of Health for Toronto.

“She said, you know, just try to do the things you need to do, and maybe hold back on doing the things that you just want to do,” Ms. Freeland said. “And I think if we can keep on doing that for a few more weeks, Canada can really fully put COVID behind us.”

With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa and the Canadian Press

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