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Not so fast with that trip to Buffalo: The U.S. border may be reopening to Canadians, but ‘the rules are the rules’

WASHINGTON — Plenty of people were celebrating after the U.S. government announced this week it would reopen its land border to Canadian leisure travellers. Among them were Canadian wannabe day-trippers hoping to do some cross-border shopping, dining or sightseeing in places like Niagara Falls, NY. Perhaps even more ecstatic were the restaurateurs, retailers and other business owners in U.S. border communities who have been missing such travellers: the New York Times reported Thursday that upstate New Yorkers “could not be happier” with the news.

They may want to hold the celebrations.

There’s some fine print in the border policies that could keep a lot of Canadians home (and I’m not talking about the COVID-19 rates in the U.S. that still have Canada warning against travel). Even fully vaccinated Canadians determined to visit might find themselves blocked, or their trip complicated, by two outstanding issues.

One is the acceptability at the border of mixed-dose vaccinations — typically, one dose of AstraZeneca and a second of either Pfizer or Moderna — which have been approved in Canada but not in the U.S. A decision by American authorities on whether they count as fully vaccinated for Canadians heading south is expected soon.

The other is the requirement for a negative COVID-19 test result to re-enter Canada, a Canadian border policy that may remain an obstacle for some time.

First, the mixed doses. My brother and sister, who live in Toronto and might like to visit me in Washington, had mixed doses. My editor had mixed doses. Just under four million other Canadians got mixed doses. But U.S. authorities say they’re still deliberating whether those people are considered fully vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says it hasn’t seen enough evidence about the effectiveness of mixing vaccines, although a preliminary study by Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institutes of Health published online Wednesday showed mix-and-match vaccination booster shots provide “robust” immune responses that may be stronger than that from another dose of the same vaccine. Earlier international studies have seemed to show strong responses to mixed doses.

U.S. Food and Drug administration officials are now considering a number of vaccine questions, including the new research on mixed-dose vaccinations. If the U.S. were to decide not to allow them, the Canadian government would then have to decide whether to allow third-dose booster shots for those Canadians with mixed vaccines who want to travel to the U.S.

Second, there’s the need for a negative result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours to re-enter Canada. This is a complication for anyone travelling across the border from the U.S. — and has been one for air travellers all along — but it may be a bigger obstacle for cross-border shoppers or other day-trippers.

The issue is that those tests can be forbiddingly expensive. While PCR tests with a 72-hour turnaround are typically free for American residents, they cost roughly $75 (all figures U.S.) for Canadians. Rapid tests of the kind you’d need if you were on an overnight trip or day trip are substantially more than that: at one Buffalo location, a test offering results in 24 hours costs $160, and tests returning results in one hour are $225. That could leave a family of four returning from an afternoon visit to the American side of Niagara Falls on the hook for more than $1,000 Canadian in testing fees.

That hassle and cost could deter quite a lot of the visitors who border-town businesses are desperate to welcome back. Consider the case of the only grocery store in Point Roberts, a small municipality in Washington state that is entirely surrounded by Canadian land in British Columbia, which usually depends on Canadian shoppers to stay afloat. No one is going to pay hundreds of dollars and wait hours for a test just so they can buy eggs and milk at their favourite store.

As Public Safety Minister Bill Blair helpfully pointed out Wednesday, there is a loophole: Canadians making short trips can get tested in Canada before they leave, and use that test result for their re-entry — as long as it is still less than 72 hours old. This seems to defeat the purpose of ensuring Canadians aren’t bringing back a case they picked up in the U.S., but it has been the policy for air travellers and remains the policy for drivers.

Those making a short trip would be well advised to plan ahead and get tested in Canada before they leave, unless the Canadian policy requiring a test for fully vaccinated travellers is changed.

And there’s no reason at this stage to think that’s likely to happen soon. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about it repeatedly at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. “I’m going to be travelling from the U.S. to Canada this afternoon,” Freeland said. “I had to get a PCR test, and I’m glad that I did.” While she said she wouldn’t “predict the future,” Freeland defended the testing policy as a necessary precaution to control the virus in Canada. “That is an example of continued prudent and careful policy,” she said.

“The rules are the rules,” she added, “and people should expect to follow them.”

Which may mean that U.S. border communities shouldn’t expect a wave of tourists just yet, and that Canadians making trips should expect to plan ahead (and budget) for the testing requirements. At least, those Canadians whose vaccinations qualify them to enter the U.S. in the first place. Just now, it’s hard to know exactly how many Canadians to expect that to be.

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