Canada reopens to vaccinated Americans but few rush to the border
By Ian Austen
When Heidi Linckh peered down at the border between Canada and the United States from the 400-foot-high sightseeing lookout she owns with her husband earlier this week, she saw something that had been long been missing from the view: a string of passenger cars.
Hours earlier, Canada had reopened its borders to nonessential travel by fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the United States for the first time since March 2020.
But the pent-up demand created by the shutdown did not lead to a surge in traffic from Americans desperate to again visit their neighbors — at least, not immediately. By midmorning at the border crossing in Lansdowne, Ontario, private cars were outnumbered by heavy trucks, for which the border was never shut.
“It’s of course more than we had in two years,” Linckh said from the top deck of the 1000 Islands Tower, which sits on a Canadian island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. “But, you know, they opened the border on a Monday. Everybody in tourism could have had a nice weekend — but they picked Monday.”
And so far the border reopening is only one way.
Late last month, after Canada announced that it would reopen its border, U.S. officials made clear that they would not immediately reciprocate.
“The United States is extending restrictions on nonessential travel at our land and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico through Aug. 21,” the Department of Homeland Security said at the time.
On Monday, even with the relatively light cross-border traffic, delays were reported to be common. Some travelers proved less adept at navigating Canada’s new pandemic document requirements than others.
At the Thousand Islands Bridge crossing, Tim Guinnane, who drove from New Haven, Connecticut, with a kayak on the roof of his Toyota Prius and a bicycle in the back, said that once his car had gotten in line, it had taken him three hours to reach a border guard.
“That’s not like a violation of the Geneva Convention,” he said before going into the base of the tower to buy a bottle of water. “I just thought it’d be more like an hour.”
Like several other travelers, he attributed the long wait to Americans who had failed to upload proof of vaccination and a recent negative coronavirus test to a Canadian government app. There were also travelers who simply had neither — and they were turned back.
Once he reached the border booth, Guinnane said, he was questioned by a border guard for about five minutes in a process that typically takes less than a minute.
The scene was similar hundreds of miles west at the International Rainbow Bridge that connects Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York, where there were long delays, but not an exceptional number of vehicles. It is one of the few transborder bridges that allows pedestrians, but even they faced a 45-minute wait to be cleared into Canada.
The Canada Border Services Agency said that it did not compile same-day statistics for border crossings.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread, the United States closed land borders with its two neighboring countries. Since then, it has renewed the restrictions each month, coordinating with the Canadian and Mexican authorities.
In mid-July, Canada said it would welcome back Americans beginning Monday, as long as they had been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days before travel. It said it hoped to let in visitors from other countries beginning next month, depending on conditions.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said at the time that the United States would not follow suit. “We rely on the guidance of our health and medical experts, not the actions of other countries,” she said.
If that posture frustrated the Canadians, they did not say so, at least publicly.
“Every country gets to set its own rules about how it will keep its citizens safe,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
Several of the American travelers who pulled into the 1000 Islands Tower parking lot for a break were headed to resorts that they normally visit annually or were returning to their summer properties in the country for the first time since 2019. Guinnane and his kayak were heading not far west of the bridge to a place he has rented for about 20 years, last year excepted.
Eric Marshall, of Cecil County, Maryland, who was towing an aluminum fishing boat behind his SUV, was headed with his parents to a resort west of Ottawa that’s been a family summer destination for 35 years.
“Last year was the first year we missed since, well forever,” he said. “I’ve been coming up since 16 years old. It was a big, big deal to miss it last year.”
Long before the border reopened, Canada was allowing entry for family reunification, although with a two-week quarantine requirement. That is now lifted for the fully vaccinated.
And Canadians have been able to travel to the United States for any purpose since March 2020 provided that they fly. That led a small number of Canadians who like to spend their winters in warmer American states to ship their cars across the border and then take a short helicopter flight to be reunited with them.
Commercial travelers like truck drivers, railway workers and ship crews have always been exempted from restrictions. Canadians from border towns who work in essential jobs in the United States, particularly in health care, were also allowed to continue their commutes.
On Monday, Linckh said the reopening had come too late to salvage this summer’s tourist season. Not a single bus tour has booked to take in the tower’s spectacular view for the balance of the year.
And not all travelers making the crossing on the first day of the border reopening were coming for extended lakeside stays.
Christine Buckley made the relatively short drive (excluding the three-hour wait) from Gouverneur, New York, to spend a day shopping and dining in Kingston, Ontario.
“It’s torture living here if you can’t cross the border,” Buckley said. “It’s something you’re used to doing on a regular basis, then suddenly you can’t. So it’s really nice to be back.”