The 15-month closure of the border between the United States and Canada was looking like it could soon come to an end, though officials from both countries had yet to commit to anything publicly.
Then an announcement Wednesday from the Canadian government appeared to set the stage for a slower reopening than many on both sides of the border had hoped.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Tuesday that the country’s climbing vaccination rate will allow for easing of COVID-19 restrictions “in the coming days and months.”
That includes easing the closure of the U.S.-Canada border, which has remained off limits to non-essential travel since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
But on Wednesday, the Canadian government announced a minor loosening of the border restrictions that will allow those already permitted to enter the country to avoid a hotel quarantine.
The new rule, which takes effect in July, did not expand the eligible pool of people to enter the country, all but ensuring the border will remain closed to non-essential travelers for the time being.
The two countries have agreed to repeated monthly extensions of the border closure. The next deadline is coming up June 21.
Here’s what to know about the U.S.-Canada border closure and what comes next:
When will the Canadian border reopen?
That’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to.
The short answer: As soon as June 22, though nothing is official. And Wednesday’s announcement seemed to potentially slow things down.
Every month since March 2020, U.S. and Canadian officials have renewed a joint, monthlong border closure, preventing the vast majority of travel across the land border connecting the two allied countries.
The most recent extension runs through June 21.
As recently as Tuesday, there had been reason to believe there may be some changes this time around, however, though they may fall short of a total border reopening.
That day, the U.S. Department of State downgraded Canada on its travel advisory list, moving it from Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”) to Level 3 (“Reconsider Travel”). The move signals the U.S. government views Canada as a lesser threat to spread COVID-19, which has coincided with more and more Canadians getting vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Niagara Falls (Ontario) Mayor Jim Diodati told USA TODAY that Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair held a meeting with mayors of border cities on May 28, in which Blair suggested officials discussed easing the travel restrictions as soon as the most-recent closure order expires June 21. The meeting was first reported by POLITICO.
But by Wednesday, the Canadian government announced only the minor change to its border policy.
Beginning in early July, Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have been able to cross the border throughout the pandemic — essential workers, some students, etc. — will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days upon returning home.
Instead, they will have to take two COVID tests, one before they leave the U.S. and one after they arrive back in Canada, and isolate until the second test comes back negative.
What are officials saying about the border reopening?
On Tuesday, Trudeau said he had no announcements to make about the border. But when asked whether it would happen in stages and perhaps allow vaccinated travelers to avoid a mandatory quarantine, Trudeau suggested that may be the case.
“We are continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated while understanding that, yes, there are going to be stages which make it possible to ease the rules in the coming weeks and months,” Trudeau said in French during a news conference.
Trudeau said he would have border announcements to make “in due course, but not today.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday she doesn’t “have anything to predict about the timeline” of the reopening.
“We would make a decision about the Canada border based on the guidance of our health and medical experts,” she said during a briefing. “And I’m sure that when that decision is made, we would communicate through diplomatic channels.”
Who’s holding up the border reopening?
U.S. officials haven’t said much about what COVID-19 case or vaccination benchmarks they’re looking to hit before reopening the border.
But Trudeau had previously said he would like to see 75% of Canadians get at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before allowing nonessential travel over the U.S. border.
As of Tuesday, 56.8% of Canadians — about 21.6 million — had received at least one dose, a number that has risen steadily in recent weeks, according to the Canadian government.
By contrast, about 51.7% of the U.S. population — 171.7 million people — have received at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why did the border close?
The U.S.-Canada border was first restricted to essential travel on March 20, 2020.
At the time, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly throughout the United States, and particularly in New York, which was at the epicenter of the pandemic in March and April of that year.
The idea was to limit the potential spread of the potentially deadly virus between the two countries.
“With COVID-19 continuing to spread, the health and safety of Canadians is our top priority,” Trudeau said at the time. “Canada and the United States have agreed to work together for the protection of our people and our economies.”
Who can cross the border now?
While the border restrictions remain in place, U.S. citizens looking to travel into Canada can only cross in extremely limited circumstances.
The Canadian government makes clear that all foreign nationals, including those from the U.S., cannot cross the border for any sort of leisure or tourism travel, as well as social gatherings or weddings.
Even those U.S. citizens with property in Canada have not been allowed to cross.
The Canadian government does allow U.S. citizens to enter if they are reuniting with a family member who is a Canadian citizen, though even that is largely restricted to an immediate family member, grandparent or grandchild. It also requires a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, though that requirement is being rescinded next month.
Those from the U.S. are also allowed to enter Canada for essential travel, such as working for their employer there, moving essential goods or people, or for certain “compassionate” reasons like a funeral or caring for someone who is ailing.
There are also separate rules for traveling to Canada by air to get to another country, which is allowed with some restrictions.
The Canadian government has an online tool available for checking whether you can enter during the restricted border period.
How bad will traffic be when the border reopens?
Even under normal circumstances, some U.S.-Canada border checkpoints can be subject to some traffic.
But what happens when travelers from either country make good on the pent-up demand to cross when the border reopens? There certainly could be some traffic.
Andrea Czopp, vice president of operations for Destination Niagara USA, a nonprofit dedicated to marketing Niagara County, said she believes the area will see a return of Canadian visitors “right away.”
“How big that will be? I don’t know,” Czopp said. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that once that border reopens, the Canadians will be coming back for sure.”
Already, hotels and tourism destinations in Niagara Falls, New York, have seen an uptick of activity even without Canadian visitors, with 95.2% and 86.5% of hotel rooms booked during the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, respectively, according to STR, a hospitality analytics firm.
Czopp said she’s hopeful federal officials will have a plan in place to ease traffic once the border reopens.
“Hopefully it doesn’t impact traffic too much,” she said. “Our downtown corridor is already pretty condensed. So, if we can get those cars across the border as quickly as possible, in and out, that would be ideal.”
Jon Campbell is the New York State Team editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.