U.S.-Canada border closure extended into 2021 due to COVID

The U.S.-Canada border closure to non-essential travel has been extended into 2021 and and is now scheduled to expire Jan. 21, according to tweets from both sides of the border Friday morning, Dec. 11.

All essential travel, such as that for trade between the nations, will continue as usual.

The closure was set to expire Dec. 21 before Canadian Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Bill Blair announced the extension of the closure in a tweet.

“Our decision will continue to be based on the best public health advice available to keep Canada safe,” Blair tweeted.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf tweeted out similar sentiment from the American side of the border Friday, adding that the U.S. border closure with Mexico also will extend to Jan. 21.

“In order to continue to prevent the spread of COVID, the U.S., Mexico, (and) Canada will extend the restrictions on non-essential travel through Jan. 21,” Wolf tweeted. “We are working closely with Mexico (and) Canada to keep essential trade (and) travel open while also protecting our citizens from the virus.”

Wolf went on to tweet, “As this administration continues to make great progress on a vaccine for COVID, we will reevaluate non-essential travel restrictions again early in the new year.”

The U.S. and Canada first agreed to close the border to non-essential travel beginning March 21, and have extended that restriction on a month-by-month basis. Friday’s announcement officially marks the ninth such extension.

The latest extension doesn’t come as a surprise as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a virtual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations earlier this week that he had no plans to give in to pressure and open the border too soon and that doing so could be catastrophic, according to a story published by 660CityNews.com.

“It would be a real shame to open things too quickly and see vulnerability,” Trudeau said, according to 660CityNews. “I’m going to be very, very cautious when it comes to keeping Canadians safe even if there’s lots of pressure to allow international travel again.”

Last week, Trudeau said he had no plans to open Canada’s borders “until the virus is significantly more under control everywhere around the world,” according to a Vancouver Sun story.

“We are incredibly lucky that trade in essential goods, in agricultural products, in pharmaceuticals is flowing back and forth as it always has,” Trudeau said, according to the Sun story.

COVID numbers update

The numbers on both sides of the border do not signal a reopening coming anytime soon, as both the U.S. and Canada are seeing big increases this fall.

As of Friday morning, the United States remained the hardest hit country in the world during the pandemic with more than 15.6 million confirmed cases and 293,000 related deaths, according to the John Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard. Canada, meanwhile, was 27th overall with 448,682 cases and 13,210 related deaths.

The U.S. is the third- most populated country in the world with 331,002,651 residents, according to worlometers.info, while Canada is No. 39 with 37,742,154 residents.

According to the British Columbia COVID-19 dashboard as of Thursday, Dec. 10, the province has seen 40,060 total cases during the pandemic and 587 confirmed deaths — an increase of 15,102 cases and 266 deaths since the last border extension was announced Nov. 20. With a population of approximately 5.1 million, British Columbia has seen an infection rate of 296.1 cases and 5.2 deaths per 100,000 residents since Nov. 20.

The Washington State Department of Health, meanwhile, reported 192,413 confirmed cases and 2,850 related deaths on Thursday — an increase of 55,002 cases and 247 deaths since Nov. 20. With a population of approximately 7.5 million, the state has averaged 733.36 cases and 3.3 deaths per 100,000 residents since Nov. 20.

Ice road solution

The Northwest Angle in Minnesota, which is separated from the rest of Minnesota by a lake and surrounded on the other three sides by Canada, will have the services of an ice road this winter, according to a story by the West Central Tribune. The road includes approximately 22 miles of ice over Lake of the Woods and then an eight-mile on land over an old snowmobile trail to reach the town.

The good news is no border crossings are required to make the jaunt.

The road was the work of Northwest Angle residents and resort owners coming together to find a way to save their winter tourism season, according to the Tribune, and only those who purchase a pass will be allowed on what’s being called the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road.

“These resorts are uniting and doing everything they can to bring some commerce to the Northwest Angle, which has been cut off from society other than a 40-mile boat ride all year long,” Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, told the Tribune. “We’re looking for another way to try and preserve these Northwest Angle resorts that have already lost their spring, summer and fall. We had to do something.”

Unfortunately, that is not a solution likely to help a Whatcom County community also cut off by the border closure.

Point Roberts finds itself in a similar situation, as an enclave just below the 49th parallel on the Tsawwassen peninsula and separated from the rest of Whatcom County.

Approximately 1,300 Point Roberts residents cannot travel to the rest of Whatcom County without entering British Columbia, driving approximately 26 miles around Boundary Bay and re-entering the United States in Blaine at the Peace Arch Border Crossing.

The Port of Bellingham has offered passenger ferry service from Point Roberts since Aug. 15 to help residents with medical appointments in Whatcom County. The ferry now goes to Bellingham’s Fairhaven terminal twice a week.

Unlike the Northwest Angle, Point Roberts was even left off a list of isolated communities Canada agreed to allow limited border crossings to residents for necessities, such as food and medical services, beginning on Halloween.

Economic impact

Whatcom County is certainly feeling the economic impact of the border closure, which now prepares to enter its eighth month.

The Western Washington University Border Policy Research Institute has found that Canadians comprise approximately 75% of cross-border travelers to and from Whatcom County, depending on the exchange rate when the border is open, according to information Director Laurie Trautman emailed to The Bellingham Herald for an earlier story.

In 2018, that would have represented approximately 10.5 million southbound Canadian travelers through the Blaine, Lynden, Sumas and Point Roberts points of entry.

Those Canadians represent a large portion of consumers in Whatcom County — anywhere from 2% to 46% of the weekend customer base Whatcom County retailers see, Trautman reported, adding that the average is about 17%.

Essential travel between the two countries is still allowed, though, and that includes transportation of freight.

Bureau of Transportation statistics show that freight shipments across the border are continuing to recover from early pandemic lows.

The statistics show freight crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada in September was 28% above what was seen in August. It is still down 6.6% compared to September of 2019, though.

Approximately $28.4 billion worth of freight crossed the U.S.-Canada border in trucks, the Bureau of Transportation reported, which was up 1.9% over August, but down 1.9% from last year. Rail freight over the border was valued at $7.5 billion — up. 2.3% from August, but down 6.6% from last year.

Follow more of our reporting on Full coverage of coronavirus in Washington

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David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.

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