WASHINGTON—During the two weeks I recently travelled back to Canada to visit family for the first time in way-too-long, I got a lot of questions from Canadians wondering when they might be able to drive to the U.S. for a similar trip. That information, as I’ve written at various points during the summer, is frustratingly hard to come by.
The U.S. government is resistant to providing straight answers — or any answers — to questions about land policy considerations, leaving reporters and the normally in-the-know experts we consult to read some combination of tea leaves and smoke signals before trying to guess.
But as signals go, the decision by the U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control on Monday doesn’t seem particularly hard to decode. Telling U.S. travellers that Canada is a “level three” threat due to and that they should therefore “reconsider travel” to Canada doesn’t seem like a sign they’re on the verge of opening the doors wide to travellers from Canada.
(On Tuesday morning, some media outlets briefly reported that the threat level had been raised even further, to “level four — do not travel,” which caused a flurry of astonished concern on social media. This, it turns out, was an error.)
Once upon a pandemic time, the U.S. did have Canada on its “do not travel” list, but it recently lowered that assessment to “level two — exercise increased caution.”
Shortly after that, the U.S. issued its most recent update to official border policy when it extended its land-border ban on entry by Canadians — other than U.S. visa holders and essential travellers — until at least Sept. 21.
Now it has revised its estimate of the risk Canada poses again. The CDC, in its update, urged Americans not to travel to Canada except for essential reasons because “all travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.”
You may scoff at the notion that the U.S. considers Canadians a risk to infect Americans. While the fears of another wave of the Delta variant in Canada are real, they pale in comparison to the actual wave that’s overtaken much of the U.S. right now. As the U.S. commentator after the erroneous reports of a level four warning, “Canada currently has about 7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, about one-seventh the rate of the US and less than half that of the lowest US state.”
It certainly seems that Americans would be safer from the virus if they travelled to Canada than they are in most parts of the U.S. (as fully vaccinated Americans have been free to do without quarantining since Aug. 9, as long as they test negative before entry). Many Canadians will think that the current U.S. ban protects them a lot more than it does the Americans they’d be visiting.
When I was in Ontario in late August, I overheard one Canadian in the Fort Erie area explaining that although he had relatives in North Carolina and lived 20 minutes from the border, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to travel to the U.S. again. He’s surely not alone.
And yet there are plenty of Canadians I hear from — those who are fully vaccinated, and who have relatives or friends in the U.S., or who own property there — who would like to visit. They consider vaccination and testing requirements reasonable. They cannot understand why long-standing U.S. policy would allow them to fly in (as it has allowed all along) but not to drive across the border. There has of that policy, and there doesn’t appear to be a change imminent.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did say this week that the U.S. continues to work with its allies on “strengthening testing protocols” and ensuring all those entering the U.S. are fully vaccinated. “No decision has been made yet, but these internal discussions have benefited greatly from our engagement with our international partners,” Psaki said.
Which is about as definitive as official statements on the future of border restrictions into the U.S. have been. I’ve written before about things that appear to be complicating any decision on the land border with Canada — . But with trade in most industries still flowing freely between the two countries, this just isn’t a priority for an American administration juggling a series of overlapping crises including Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, forest fires raging across the U.S. west, and hospitals in the south overwhelmed by the spread of the Delta variant.
The irony of the Americans raising their threat assessment of Canada this week may be that what really appears to be holding back any movement on the land border is a series of domestic threats. When their own house is on fire, they just aren’t thinking much about whether to invite the neighbours over for dinner.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: