Ambarish Chandra is an economics professor at the University of Toronto. His recent research examines travel across the U.S.-Canada border.
The federal government recently announced a loosening of restrictions on international travel. Fully vaccinated Canadians who return home by air will soon no longer have to submit to a government-mandated hotel stay, nor will they have to complete a full 14-day quarantine. This might seem a welcome first step in a return to normalcy. However, the pace is yet another example of excessive caution that will continue to harm Canadian citizens and businesses.
Last year, I argued in favour of the government’s decision to close the border to non-essential travel. This was a difficult position to take, as the natural inclination of economists such as myself is to support liberal policies toward travel because of its enormous social and economic benefits. But the U.S. Trump administration’s outright denial of virus’s impact – a view shared by many Americans – meant that Canada lacked a responsible partner in fighting the pandemic.
That position is now out-of-date. The Biden administration responsibly tackled the virus from the start with a rapid, efficient and largely equitable vaccination plan. It was obvious as early as February that the United States’s head start on vaccines would sharply reduce community transmission. Indeed, by April, per capita cases in the U.S. fell below ours. That would have been a reasonable time to discuss reopening the border.
Instead, Canada inexplicably continues to maintain that international travel remains unsafe. This has led to an absurd situation where fully vaccinated snowbirds and other returning Canadians have been forced to undergo hotel and home quarantines – and will be at least until July, when the recently announced changes are to be implemented – despite posing virtually no risk to others. The government also requires three separate tests over an eight- or nine-day period, despite the obvious redundancy. Canada’s approach to these travellers has essentially been punitive, as though they were wrong to take advantage of the faster vaccine rollout in the U.S. In reality, these Canadians gave up spots in line at home to others while helping to break chains of transmission.
Businesses that depend on foreign tourists have been clamouring for relaxed restrictions for months. There had been some indication that the border would reopen soon to non-Canadians, but the latest announcement dashes those hopes. It is absurd that the exemption from quarantine is limited only to Canadians, as though fully vaccinated Americans and others somehow continue to be infectious. The government has ignored the clear recommendations of its own expert panel, which sought a significant relaxation of current rules.
There are also worrying signs that the federal government is pandering to an ugly, nativist sentiment, egged on by provinces that have blamed loose border controls for the deadly third wave. Nearly half of all Canadians believe that the border should remain closed according a May Angus Reid poll, which is a sign of how concerned we are, but is not a basis for sound policy.
Last year, Canadians rightly recoiled from some segments of American society for their anti-science views, including claims the virus was a hoax or a conspiracy by tech titans. Denying the power of vaccines is no less anti-science, yet official guidance from Ottawa implies that vaccinated individuals may still spread the virus just as before. Can we look at Americans now and still really claim that ours is the more rational society?
If tourism dependent-businesses – such as restaurants, hotels, theme parks and tour companies – lose customers for a second successive summer, most will not survive. That would be catastrophic, not just for the roughly 10 per cent of Canadians employed in the sector, but for the larger economy. Continuing to cruelly prevent family reunification will further harm those separated from their loved ones. And make no mistake: Canada stands apart from others in this regard. Europe is already welcoming fully vaccinated Americans. Travellers are eagerly planning for a celebratory summer and it will soon be too late for those plans to include visits to Canada.
For years, Ottawa’s stated policy was to support the free flow of people and goods, and to oppose misconceived American efforts to “thicken” the border. Cross-border travel took years to recover after new security measures imposed in the wake of 9/11, and after the 2009 requirement for travellers to carry passports. It would be a massive miscalculation for Ottawa to continue its current policy.
Fully vaccinated travellers pose virtually no risk to Canada. But family reunification, border tourism and the livelihoods of small and large businesses are all at risk from Canada’s arbitrary border policies. We must immediately allow all vaccinated travellers to enter Canada freely.
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