Washington is tightening travel rules for all foreign nationals, including Canadians, further complicating the situation for holiday travellers as governments around the world grapple with the emergence of the Omicron variant..
The U.S. changes follow new rules rolled out by Canada on Tuesday, which already caused panic among travellers, according to the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). For Canadians going to the U.S., the new rules announced by President Joe Biden on Thursday mean individuals will need a different type of COVID-19 test and will have to follow a different testing timeframe than the ones for returning to Canada.
As early as Monday, the United States will require “all inbound international travellers” to get an antigen test within 24 hours of their departure. Previously, the test was required within 72 hours. Canada, meanwhile, requires individuals to get the more costly polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before entering the country but allows for a 72-hour window.
The federal government had expected the new 24-hour testing rule to also apply at the land border. But updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the testing order would only apply to air travel and won’t apply at the land border or to people arriving at seaports.
The new U.S. travel rules follow a week of alternately loosened and tightened border restrictions in Canada. Starting this week, Canadians and permanent residents returning within 72 hours of leaving the country no longer need to be tested. But Ottawa announced this week that anyone arriving in Canada from a country other than the U.S. will need to take a test upon arrival and isolate until they get the result.
“The average traveller is incredibly confused,” said ACTA president Wendy Paradis. “The No. 1 destination that Canadians go to is the United States. The No. 1 tourist into Canada are U.S. residents. And so it would really be so helpful if the governments of Canada and the United States could get aligned at a very minimum on what test they’re using.”
Almost two years into the pandemic, Business Council of Canada president Goldy Hyder said, the inconsistencies and changing rules are increasing the public’s frustration.
“It would be preferred that there is consistency on both sides of the border in the way things are being applied,” he said. “So whatever that is, make it the same.”
The price for antigen tests could climb significantly with the new 24-hour timeframe. Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto, said the turnaround time is forcing some clients to go to private clinics that charge $350 for the test, compared with $20 to $40 at some pharmacies.
Ottawa announced no changes to its rules in response to Washington’s announcement Thursday. And on Parliament Hill cabinet ministers defended the Canadian rules, saying they’re based on advice from the country’s public-health experts.
“We’ll make sure that we try to find alignment wherever we can,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said. “But at the end of the day we’re going to listen to the advice we’re getting from our health care experts.”
The Bloc Québécois and NDP both called for more clarity and consistency and criticized the government for how it communicated the latest changes. For example, the government says its new on-arrival testing and isolation rule is already in place. But airports say they don’t have the information needed to implement it, and the government’s own travel website doesn’t yet list the new rule.
“Canadians do not know what the rules are and when they are going to apply,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in Question Period.
In response, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland described the travel requirements as a “circuit breaker to give us time to be careful.”
Cases of the Omicron variant have now been identified in five U.S. states, but Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Thursday that the government’s on-arrival test and isolation requirement does not need to be extended to people coming from the U.S. He said the government is working to make sure Canada has the testing capacity needed in case circumstances change and it decides to extend the requirement to those travellers.
The 24-hour testing window was announced by Mr. Biden in a suite of new measures aimed at keeping the economy running and schools open in the face of the unknowns brought on by the Omicron variant.
Travellers will need to get tested regardless of their vaccination status or nationality, the White House said, adding that masking requirements will be extended into March.
The White House is also trying to convince more Americans to get their COVID-19 shots and boosters, accelerating research into vaccinating kids under the age of five, expanding access to at-home tests and donating 200 million more vaccine doses around the world within the next 100 days.
It’s a plan that “pulls no punches” and is as much about bringing a fractured country back together as it is about staving off yet another deadly wave of infection, Mr. Biden said.
With reports from Robert Fife and The Canadian Press
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said the new U.S. travel rules were expected to apply at the land border, but updated information from the U.S. shows the rules will only apply to air travellers.
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.