Canada’s land border with the United States will remain closed until at least Sept. 21.

In an order pre-published Friday, the U.S Department of Homeland Security cites the delta variant and case counts as the reason for keeping its land border closed.

“The Delta variant is driving an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States,” the department wrote. “Canada and Mexico are also seeing increased case counts and deaths.”

“Given the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of COVID-19 within the United States and globally, the Secretary has determined that the risk of continued transmission and spread of the virus associated with COVID-19 between the United States and Canada poses an ongoing specific threat to human life or national interests.”

The decision was first reported by CBC News Thursday evening.

The renewal of the order does not affect the ability of U.S. citizens currently in Canada to cross the border into the U.S.

The decision comes two weeks after Canada opened its land border to Americans who are fully vaccinated and have a negative PCR test taken within the previous 72 hours.

The first week Canada’s land border was open again, Aug. 9-15, thousands of Americans crossed the border into Canada.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 1.6 million travellers crossed the land border into Canada in that same time frame.

Asked about the U.S. land border closure on the campaign trail, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the two countries are co-ordinating closely, but pointed out that the border orders issued by Canada and the U.S. have been asynchronous from the start.

“Canadians, unvaccinated or vaccinated, have always been able to fly down to Florida or Arizona over Christmas when we weren’t reciprocating for Americans who wanted to come up to their cottages or come ski in Canada,” Trudeau told reporters. “We will work together as much as possible to co-ordinate, to make sure things are going well, but every country gets to make their own decisions on how to best keep their citizens safe.”

Aiming to contain delta variant

While Canada announced on July 19 that it would open its border, the U.S. decided to keep its land border closed until at least Aug. 21.

Since then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s map of community transmission across the country has grown redder by the day. The vast majority of U.S. counties bordering Canada are now in the category of high or substantial COVID-19 community transmission.

Despite that, in many places like upstate New York, few Americans have been wearing masks in stores and other indoor spaces. While many Canadian communities have cancelled summer fairs due to public health concerns, in places like New York state, many county fairs have gone ahead as usual, with the addition of things like COVID-19 signs and hand sanitizer.

Speaking to a conference earlier this week, Ted Sobel, homeland security attaché at the U.S. embassy in Canada, provided a glimpse into the American decision-making process, saying domestic public-health concerns played a large role in the decision in July to keep the border closed.

“What really loomed large was the spread of the delta variant and all the unknowns about that, as well as trends on domestic public health dealing with things like vaccination rates, hospitalization rates, new infection rates,” Sobel told the annual summit meeting of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region on Monday.

Also watching situation at U.S.-Mexico border

Sobel said the U.S. government doesn’t want to make a decision that it will have to reverse.

He said the U.S. wants “to make sure that the decisions that we make are sustainable, because it doesn’t do anybody good to announce one thing one month and then have to reverse it because the situation is changing very rapidly.”

That said, the U.S government is analyzing the situation every day and has the flexibility to reopen the border at any time if the situation improves.

While some have speculated that reopening the border with Canada has to be in sync with reopening the border with Mexico, Sobel said that isn’t necessarily the case.

“We’re certainly not under any legal restriction to have the same policy, but we do find that we have a consistency of issues that we are looking at,” Sobel said. “A lot of what influences us is our domestic public-health situation, so that’s going to be the same whether you are talking about the southern border or the northern border.”

‘Beyond disappointing’

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Congressman who represents a district that covers Buffalo and northwestern New York and who has been lobbying to open the border, was sharply critical of the decision to keep the U.S. land border closed.

“The U.S.-Canadian relationship is integral for our economies and life-quality. The failure to make opening the border the priority that it should be is a huge mistake. There has not been enough attention placed on the value and opportunity that comes with restoring connections between our two nations. It is beyond disappointing; it is hurtful both at a human and economic level,” he said in a statement.

Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council, said the land border closure has had an impact on people on both sides of the border.

“We sincerely hope that this is the last renewal of the border closure and that [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol] will use this time to plan for a safe and smooth re-opening,” she said in a statement. “It is impossible to overstate the impact on our interconnected lives and livelihoods that have now been separated by the border for the past year and a half. With good will and smart use of technology, we should be able to reopen.”

In an interview earlier this week, Greenwood said the Department of Homeland Security is looking for ways to certify that people have been vaccinated.

“The Department of Homeland Security truly doesn’t want to be in the business of validating vaccine certifications, so what they are looking to is private sector [solutions] that they can adopt.”

Mark Agnew, senior vice president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, was also critical.

“We’re disappointed to see the continued restrictions on the land border going into the United States given both the opening of the border to fully vaccinated Americans coming into Canada and the ability of Canadians to fly into the U.S. for all purposes,” Agnew said in a statement. 

“This creates confusion for travellers when all our members repeatedly tell us they are seeking predictability. This also distracts from the efforts that should be put into developing interoperable digital health credentials.” 

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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