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With still no plan to reopen U.S. borders, communities frustrated as Biden eases restrictions on international air travel

The flag of the United States of America blows in the wind next to the flag of Canada in Bonners Ferry.  (Kathy Plonka)
The flag of the United States of America blows in the wind next to the flag of Canada in Bonners Ferry. (Kathy Plonka)

U.S. restrictions on nonessential travel at the U.S.-Canada border are here to stay for at least one more month.

The U.S. announced Monday the border will remain closed to Canadians through Oct. 21; this comes after the Biden administration moved to allow fully vaccinated travelers from other countries to fly into the U.S. beginning in November.

Many in Washington and Idaho border towns are frustrated by the differing land and air travel policies, as they have been unable to travel to and from Canada for the past 19 months.

“To not have a plan associated with reopening the land border is sort of salt in the wound for those who have been waiting for restrictions to be lifted,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University.

The new air policy allows foreign travelers to fly into the U.S. if they demonstrate proof of vaccination before boarding and a negative COVID-19 test from within three days of leaving, according to the Associated Press. Unvaccinated Americans need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test one day before flying to the U.S. as well as after they’ve arrived home.

Restrictions have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic for noncitizens looking to travel to the U.S. from the European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil and South Africa.

The policy change was welcome news to airlines, businesses and travelers, but brought no change to border communities in Washington state and Idaho.

The U.S. has always treated its land and air borders differently, Trautman said. In the air, it is much easier for the country to know who’s coming before they’re coming. At the land border, however, anybody can show up at any time, she said.

Trautman said the Department of Homeland Security explained to her the reasoning behind opening up air travel stems from the burden airlines have when it comes to international travel.

The government didn’t want airline personnel to have to determine what is essential, Trautman said. If a passenger makes it to the U.S. but it is later deemed a nonessential trip and not allowed under current restrictions, the airline has to pay for them to fly back.

“But from a public health standpoint, it makes no sense,” Trautman said.

Putting people on a plane with other people and allowing them to fly here from another country seems riskier than allowing one person alone in their car to cross, she said.

Trautman said she was not surprised that they had lifted restrictions for air travel, but she was surprised the U.S. did not release a plan or a timeline for opening up the land border.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions from The Spokesman-Review about when the border restrictions may be lifted.

Trautman said it’s possible the U.S. will either wait until the delta variant surge eases to reopen the land border completely or, more likely, officials will need to come up with a plan to track vaccinations and test results – something she said they have been slow to do.

She said the new policy will likely cause “some really messy situations” for people wishing to travel but struggling to get COVID-19 tests in time.

Since Aug. 9, Americans have been able to travel to and from Canada, but Canadians have not been able to come here. To be able to enter Canada, however, travelers still need proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of crossing. Many U.S. travelers have not even attempted to go to Canada.

Lars Jacobson, owner of Jake’s Landing in Porthill, Idaho, said he’s seen no measurable increase in American customers on their way to Canada since it loosened some restrictions. His store sits next to the Canadian border crossing .

Americans struggle to find a test, and if they do, it can be expensive, Jacobson said.

“No one’s going to go over for a day,” he said.

Travelers, business owners, policy experts and politicians have expressed their frustrations in recent months with no reopening.

“It makes you kind of lose faith in the government,” Trautman said. “When they say their basing their information on public health, that’s clearly not the case.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, have been outspoken on the need to reopen the border. A spokesperson for Inslee said he remains frustrated with the situation.

“There has not been meaningful progress despite loud and persistent demands for action from governors and House and Senate members, including Majority Leader (Chuck) Schumer,” spokesman Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “We do not feel that solving this unique problem needs to be held up by larger border issues.”

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat whose district encompasses northeast King County to the Canadian border, called on the Biden administration to take immediate steps to reopen the border to vaccinated Canadians.

“It does not follow the science to say Canadians can fly from Vancouver to Seattle but cannot drive from British Columbia to Whatcom County,” she said in a statement. “It is a disservice to families and businesses along the border that vaccinated Americans can travel north to Canada but we have not reciprocated.”

The extension to late October brings “unpredictability, suffering and frustration” for border communities, she said.

“At this point I’m trying to hold on, but I’m losing all hope,” said Jacobson, the owner of a store on the border in North Idaho.

Jacobson said he needs to do maintenance on gas pumps and their property, but they don’t have the funds to do so.

Jacobson said it will take many years for their business to be back to pre-pandemic levels. If the U.S. matched Canada’s requirements of full vaccination and negative test results, he said his business would likely only return to 25% or 30% of what it was previously.

Prior to the pandemic, Trautman said the majority of border crossings in Washington were short, frequent trips of people going back and forth. Those are likely gone for a long time.

“It is going to take more time and more effort and more money to travel across in the foreseeable future,” she said.

To assist with businesses affected by the closure, the Washington state Department of Commerce announced Monday a grant program for small businesses near the border.

The application period will be open Oct. 4 through Oct. 18. For businesses with annual revenues of $5 million or less in 2019, the grants could be up to $50,000.

More information can be found at commercegrants.com.

S-R reporter Orion Donovan-Smith contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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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