In Our View: Open Washington-Canada border to vaccinated

Strict measures are needed to flatten a surge of COVID-19 in the United States, but keeping the nation’s border with Canada closed is unnecessarily oppressive. U.S. officials should welcome visitors who have been fully vaccinated; at the least, they should make an exception for the Washington town of Point Roberts.

Instead, the Biden administration announced this month that a ban on nonessential travel from Canada has been extended to Sept. 21. That is harmful to the many Washington cities and businesses that rely on visitors from the north, and it lends some tension to the state’s relationship with its nearest international neighbor.

Restrictions apply to car, rail and ferry travel, but Canadians may still travel to the U.S. via airplane. That loophole points out the capriciousness of the decision; if visitors from Canada are especially likely to bring coronavirus with them, the risk does not change depending on the method of travel.

U.S. officials were quick to point out that the ban does not apply to the “essential” travel of commerce, saying it “should not interrupt legitimate trade between the two nations or disrupt critical supply chains.”

The move stands in contrast to Canada’s approach. After nearly 17 months of a closed border, Canada began welcoming Americans on Aug. 9. The caveat is that travelers must be fully vaccinated and meet other requirements. “We hope that at the right moment the American government will be able to change their border measures, however, we respect that it’s their decision,” Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in July.

In the first week after the opening, 218,732 travelers crossed the border into Canada for noncommercial purposes. In the Pacific Region, which includes Washington, about 32,000 visitors made the trip — roughly one-quarter the number that crossed during the same week in pre-pandemic 2019.

The U.S.-Canada border stretches for 5,525 miles — the longest international border in the world. But a tiny stretch of that provides the biggest conundrum in the issue of crossings between the countries.

Point Roberts, a community of about 1,300 people, sits at the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula. It is connected by land to Canada but is part of the United States because it is south of the 49th parallel. Because of the closed border, the community — which relies heavily on visitors and supplies from Canada — has been cut off from land travel since the pandemic began.

Following the Biden administration’s decision to extend the border closure, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said: “I appreciate the administration’s science-based approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and I firmly believe that the evidence supports a narrow and tailored exception to the administration’s Canadian border closure and a reopening of the Point Roberts port of entry to Canadian travel.”

Indeed, an exception should be made for Point Roberts. So should an exception be made for visitors from Canada who have been vaccinated and wish to visit other parts of the United States.

In 2019, Canadians made an estimated 20 million trips to the United States, with Washington ranking among the most frequent destinations. According to a 2020 study at Western Washington University, crossings by Canadians are three times more common than crossings by Americans.

It is time for the Biden administration — and businesses in Washington — to once again welcome our Canadian neighbors.

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