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U.S. borders to open in November to vaccinated travelers from Canada, Mexico

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 12, 2021

The flag of the United States of America blows in the wind next to the flag of Canada in Bonners Ferry on Thursday, March 26, 2020. The Biden Administration announced the U.S. borders to Canada and Mexico would reopen to vaccinated travelers next month.  (Kathy Plonka)
The flag of the United States of America blows in the wind next to the flag of Canada in Bonners Ferry on Thursday, March 26, 2020. The Biden Administration announced the U.S. borders to Canada and Mexico would reopen to vaccinated travelers next month. (Kathy Plonka)
By Orion Donovan-Smith and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – After more than 18 months of waiting, vaccinated travelers from Canada and Mexico will be allowed to enter the United States by land for nonessential travel starting in early November, senior Biden administration officials said Tuesday.

The new policy will be welcome news for border communities in Washington and Idaho whose economies have suffered from a lack of Canadian visitors, who have been permitted to cross the U.S. border only for travel deemed essential since pandemic restrictions were enacted in March 2020.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will announce the new policy Wednesday, the officials told reporters Tuesday night, speaking on the condition that they not be named ahead of the official announcement.

They declined to say when in early November the change will go into effect but said an exact date will be announced soon.

Visitors will need to be fully vaccinated and have appropriate travel documents. The change will also apply for fully vaccinated travelers from Mexico who have a U.S. visa, and the officials emphasized that asylum seekers who cross the border illegally will still be sent back to Mexico under a rule known as Title 42.

Asked what kind of proof of vaccination will be needed, the officials said specific guidance will be announced in the coming days. They also said they anticipated that the AstraZeneca vaccine – which is approved in Canada but not in the U.S. – will be accepted, as well as doses of two different vaccines, although an official decision may not come for weeks.

How the U.S. border patrol would check vaccination records was a cause of frustration for many border policy experts throughout the closure as the U.S. government has been slow to release any details on it.

Canada, for example, uses the ArriveCAN app to track visitors’ COVID-19 vaccine and test records. The U.S. has not had a similar system in place.

When the border initially closed to nonessential travel, the decision was made in tandem by the U.S. and Canada – something experts say is typical for border policy. Since the closure has dragged on, however, decisions for each country’s policy have been made separately.

Canada opened its land borders to fully vaccinated travelers in August, allowing Americans to cross the border for nonessential travel as long as they had a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arriving. The U.S., on the other hand, has been reluctant to reopen its land borders, citing public health concerns.

“It was a misstep,” Matt Morrison, CEO of the public-private nonprofit Pacific Northwest Economic Region, told the Spokesman-Review last month. “We should’ve been doing things in sync.”

The change to be announced Wednesday will align the rules for travelers who enter by land with those for air travel.

Last month, the U.S. agreed to allow fully vaccinated travelers from other countries to fly into the U.S. beginning in November. At the time, no changes had been released to travel across the land border. That decision drew criticism even from the Biden administration’s Democratic allies, including Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who had long called for some sort of reopening or exemption for the isolated community of Point Roberts.

The closure forced many businesses in Point Roberts and other small border towns across Washington and Idaho to close, as many of their economies rely on Canadians who often come down for tourism, cheap gas or goods.

Even when the border reopens, experts have said the closure will have lasting effects.

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, said last month there will always be a sense of uncertainty for the communities and businesses along the border.

“Now that it’s been done,” Trautman said, “it can happen again.”

Orion Donovan-Smith and Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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