The border between Canada and the U.S. will likely close for non-essential travel by Saturday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, as Ottawa ramps up efforts to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
The federal government is grappling with a myriad of border challenges as countries around the world impose a patchwork of rules, airlines cancel flights and at-risk asylum seekers continue to cross into Canada at unauthorized crossings.
Ottawa says it is trying its best to help while the people caught in the middle are worried and scrambling to get the answers they need to reunite with families and loved ones.
“It’s love through coronavirus I guess,” said Gregg Keating, a Canadian who is trying to find out if his American wife will be allowed to cross the border so they can wait out COVID-19 together.
The implementation of the partial ban is still being finalized, but an official said the focus will be on limiting discretionary travel such as vacations and non-essential retail shopping and that travel on compassionate grounds will still be allowed.
The Globe and Mail is keeping the name of the official confidential because they were not allowed to speak publicly about the matter.
At his daily press conference Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said Canada and the U.S. are still “fine-tuning” the details of an agreement.
“I think it’s almost there,” Mr. Trudeau said. “My understanding is that the measures will probably come into place in the night between Friday and Saturday.”
The unprecedented move is one of many that the federal government is taking to ensure people practice as much social-distancing as possible to limit the transmission of COVID-19.
The two countries each announced the partial closing on Wednesday. Mr. Trudeau said he expects the “difficult and extraordinary measures” to be in place for weeks or months. The initial time frame for the new rules around the border is expected to be 30 days.
At a separate press conference Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said people in geographically isolated communities would still be able to cross the border because “their daily life requires" it. She said that includes Campobello, N.B. and Point Roberts, Wash.
Mr. Trudeau tried to reassure businesses and individuals that essential travel will continue and supply chains “will not be affected" so groceries, medical supplies and other items will get to where they need to go.
Ms. Freeland directly appealed to truck drivers to keep working.
“We need them to keep on crossing the border to supply our grocery stores and medical goods, and America needs truck drivers to be crossing the border in the other direction.”
But the lack of clarity on who is an essential traveller has left Mr. Keating in the dark. He and his wife, Ginger, never needed to get additional residency or citizenship because they regularly go back and forth between the two countries, where each works.
Now, though, they face a prospect that they never imagined. Ms. Keating is in Florida, while Mr. Keating is in their Canadian home in Porters Lake, N.S., and so far no one has told them whether they will be allowed to travel in order to reunite in Canada.
“She’s my wife, and I’m her husband, and we’re desperately trying to find out what is essential," Mr. Keating said.
Meantime, Ottawa is working out a plan to repatriate stranded Canadians from around the world, and Mr. Trudeau discussed the issue with the leaders of Ukraine and Sweden on Thursday.
The Prime Minister said he has been in contact with Canada’s two biggest airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, to discuss bringing Canadians home who are abroad.
Some countries have fully shut down their borders, which is complicating the “massive effort” to repatriate people, Ms. Freeland said. For Canadians in those countries, this is “especially difficult” but the government is trying to fix the situation.
The government estimates that there are generally some three million Canadians abroad at any given time.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who announced Thursday that he is in self-isolation and being tested for COVID-19, was set to brief cabinet on Thursday afternoon about his plan to bring Canadians home.
As of Friday, the federal government will also temporarily house asylum seekers who continue to cross the border at unauthorized points of entry to ensure that they also self-isolate, Ms. Freeland said. On Tuesday, Ottawa announced it was in talks with Quebec about the migrants, most of whom enter along Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the federal government is organizing the housing.
More than 57,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada through unauthorized border crossings since 2017, when President Donald Trump announced a crackdown on illegal immigration.
With a report from Adrian Morrow in Washington
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