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As U.S. prepares to reopen border, some urge Canada to relax testing requirement

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This item is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians. 

What’s new

The U.S. is about to reopen its land border with Canada to non-essential travel. And it won’t require visitors to show a negative COVID-19 test; proof of vaccination will suffice.

Cue the calls for Canada to apply the same standard.

Members of the U.S. Congress are expected to send letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of Parliament asking Canada to drop the testing requirement for vaccinated travellers.

The hassle of getting tested will discourage people from taking advantage of the restored right to cross-border travel, said one member of Congress.

New York Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat, said proof of vaccination should be enough.

“Testing is redundant,” he said Wednesday, one day after the U.S. confirmed it will reopen the border early next month. 

“It will lead to a lot of Canadians that will be reluctant to come into the United States … There’s a cost associated with that. It’s also an additional administrative step that I think is unnecessary.”

What’s the context

These calls for ending test requirements have one key goal: attracting more Canadian travellers. Same-day trips represent a huge percentage of Canadian travel to the United States.

According to data from Statistics Canada, day trips comprised nearly half of all Canadian travel to the U.S. in 2019 — and two-thirds of trips taken by car.

The current Canadian testing requirements make that difficult.

To enter Canada, recreational travellers need to provide evidence of a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of entry. It can’t be a rapid antigen test, but rather must be a molecular test.

It takes one to two days to get those results at a leading U.S. pharmacy chain and can cost $139 US per sample. Canadian citizens can present a negative test performed in Canada, as long as it’s no more than 72 hours old when they return to the country.

The testing hurdle is still an issue for border communities most reliant on day travel, such as Buffalo, N.Y., for example, which Higgins represents in Congress.  

WATCH | Congressman Brian Higgins says entry rules for Canadians who received mixed COVID-19 vaccines are coming

U.S. lawmaker says guidance on mixed vaccines could come soon

The U.S. will soon allow fully vaccinated Canadians to cross the land border, but it has yet to issue guidance on mixed vaccines. Congressman Brian Higgins says he expects the White House to clarify the issue in the coming days. 7:19

Point Roberts, Wash., is another, striking case.

The lack of same-day travel has devastated that community’s economy. The town relies on people from the Vancouver area visiting the seashore, eating at a restaurant and picking up some groceries or gas before returning to Canada.

Brian Calder, the head of the local chamber of commerce, says he’s worried the new travel rules won’t mean much unless Canada relaxes its rules.

The tiny community has only two testing clinics per week, Calder said. It takes more than a day and costs $150 US to get the results.

“[Canadians] aren’t going to come down [with these rules],” he told CBC News.

What’s next

Recreational travel into the U.S. by land will resume next month, the White House has announced.

Travellers will need to have proof of vaccination, but a White House official said: “No, there will not be a testing requirement.”

Higgins said members of Congress will be writing to Trudeau and other members of Parliament, urging them to adopt the more-lenient U.S. rule on testing.

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canadian and U.S. officials are still working on cross-border travel details. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

He said that authorities are eroding their own message that vaccines work well by instituting additional requirements beyond vaccination.

Will Canada heed calls to relax the testing requirement?

Ottawa isn’t saying anything more about that for now.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair noted on Wednesday that the federal government accepts negative PCR tests that are up to 72 hours old for incoming travellers. That rule means that Canadians making day trips to the U.S. can take their COVID-19 test before leaving and use it when they re-enter, rather than relying on a private test in the U.S.

“If [Canadians] want to go over and do some shopping, it will be relatively straightforward for them to return to Canada,” Blair told CBC’s Power & Politics.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said longer-term rules haven’t been finalized yet. During a trip to Washington on Wednesday, she repeated the same reply when asked by reporters about the test rules in French and English.

“We are working to clarify and finalize all the details with our American partners,” Freeland said.

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