Temporary restrictions at northern border go into effect

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Restrictions on “non-essential” travel across the northern border went into effect on March 21, and will remain in place for at least 30 days, according to a joint statement from the U.S. and Canadian governments.

In a statement posted to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) websites on March 20, the U.S. and Canadian governments announced that cross-border travel for “tourism” or “recreation” is temporarily restricted. Supply chains, as well as travel for “essential work or for other urgent or essential reasons,” will be allowed to continue.

“The U.S.-Canada land border serves as an economic engine that supports over $1.7 billion (USD) dollars in daily cross-border trade,” read the DHS version of the joint statement. “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and Canada are temporarily restricting all non-essential travel across its borders. In each of our countries, we are encouraging people to exercise caution by avoiding unnecessary contact with others. This collaborative and reciprocal measure is an extension of that prudent approach.”

The joint statement defined “non-essential travel” to include “travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature.”

The statement continued: “The United States and Canada recognize it is critical we preserve supply chains between both countries. These supply chains ensure that food, fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border. Supply chains, including trucking, will not be impacted by this new measure. Americans and Canadians also cross the land border every day to do essential work or for other urgent or essential reasons, and that travel will not be impacted.”

The statement concluded by stating that the decision was to be implemented on March 21, “at which time the U.S. and Canada will temporarily restrict all non-essential travel across the U.S.-Canada land border. The measure will be in place for 30 days, at which point it will be reviewed by both parties.”

In a document authored by DHS acting general counsel Chad Mizelle that was scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on March 24, “essential travel” was further defined to include U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the U.S. It also includes individuals traveling for medical purposes; to attend educational institutions; to work in the U.S.; and for emergency response and public health purposes. It further includes individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade; official government or diplomatic travel; or military-related travel or operations.

Travel for tourism, sightseeing, recreation, gambling or cultural events was specifically restricted. “At this time, this notification does not apply to air, freight rail or sea travel between the United States and Canada,” said Mizelle’s memo. “These restrictions are temporary in nature and shall remain in effect until 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 20, 2020. This notification may be amended or rescinded prior to that time, based on circumstances associated with the specific threat.”

Meanwhile, CBSA issued its own guidance regarding the “enhanced border measures.” According to a CBSA spokesperson, “Canadians and Americans cross the border every day to work or study – for example, truck drivers, firefighters and nurses. Canadian and American citizens and permanent residents who are currently visiting each other’s country can still return home. All of these people and goods will not be impacted by the new measures.”

The CBSA spokesperson added: “Travel by healthy people who have to cross the border to go to work or for other essential purposes, such as medical care, will continue.” However, individuals who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, and who present symptoms consistent with COVID-19, will be restricted from entering Canada. “Canadian citizens and permanent residents presenting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may still enter Canada by land, rail and marine, but not via air, in order to ensure the health of all travelers,” the spokesperson said.

For those who cross into Canada by land, boat or rail, the questions about their health will include: “Do you currently have a cough, difficulty breathing or feel you have a fever?” Regardless of how one responds, CBSA officers are trained to observe visible signs of illness. Non-Canadians displaying symptoms will be prevented from entering Canada, while Canadians displaying symptoms will receive further assessment, a kit that includes a mask and other instructions and a pamphlet advising them to self-isolate for 14 days, the CBSA spokesperson said.

In the days leading up to the border restrictions, Whatcom Unified Command, which is handling the local response to the coronavirus outbreak, created a Border Task Force to monitor the evolving situation. Members of the task force include Whatcom County executive Satpal Sidhu, representatives from both CBP and CBSA, Point Roberts fire chief Chris Carleton, representatives from the offices of governor Jay Inlsee, senator Patty Murray and senator Maria Cantwell and representatives of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. The Border Task Force is being chaired by WCSO chief deputy Kevin Hester.

According to a March 18 press release posted on the city of Bellingham’s website, the task force met for the first time on March 18 and was holding daily conference calls to address issues such as the needs of Point Roberts residents and the ability of healthcare workers and commercial drivers to continue to cross the northern border.

“This is another new development in the COVID-19 mitigation efforts,” said the city of Bellingham’s release. “The Border Task Force is committed to working with our partners and members to ensure continuity while protecting our citizens. It is a dynamic and rapidly evolving situation with many concerns to address. As decisions are made on the federal level, the Border Task Force will respond appropriately and as swiftly as possible.”

In a March 21 email to Point Roberts’ All Point Bulletin newspaper, CBSA senior spokesperson Rebecca Purdy offered some clarification regarding travel by Point Roberts residents into and through Canada. “Healthy, non-symptomatic individuals for whom crossing the border on a day-to-day basis is essential for work and daily life will still be permitted to cross the border,” wrote Purdy. “Note, all travel of an optional or discretionary nature, including but not limited to tourism and recreation, is covered by these measures. Travel by healthy people who have to cross the border to go to work or for other essential purposes, such as medical care, will continue.”

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