Business

Canadians demand to know why they can fly — but still not drive — to the U.S.

Canadians are growing frustrated with current U.S. travel rules that allow them to fly — but not drive — to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. government did not respond to questions about its current travel policy

Canadians have been able to fly — but not drive — to the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When the United States announced it would keep its side of the Canada-U.S. land border closed to non-essential travel until at least Sept. 21, it got an earful from angry Canadians. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) broke the news earlier this month on Twitter, stating it was extending the closure "to minimize the spread of #COVID19, including the delta variant." 

That triggered dozens of complaints from Canadians — and also their American spouses — who argued the DHS explanation doesn't add up, because Canadians can still fly into the U.S. 

"So my wife can't drive over the border because that's ultra dangerous … but hell, she can fly with strangers right on over?" tweeted Steven Husak, who lives in Taylor, Mich., on the outskirts of Detroit.

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He's married to a Canadian, April Umbenhower, who lives a short drive across the border in Kingsville, Ont., about 70 kilometres away. 

To visit Husak and her two young stepsons, Umbenhower said her cheapest option right now is to drive around 360 kilometres to Toronto to take a flight to Detroit — which still costs hundreds of dollars. 

"It doesn't make any sense," said Umbenhower about the U.S. travel rules. "It's ridiculous."

Almost a year and a half ago, Canada and the U.S. agreed to close their shared land border to non-essential travel. 

For reasons that have never been fully explained, the U.S. continued to allow Canadian leisure travellers to fly to the country. Currently, air passengers only have to show proof of a negative antigen or molecular test; there's no vaccination requirement. 

When Canada reopened both its land and air borders on Aug. 9 to fully vaccinated American travellers, it was widely assumed the U.S. would reciprocate. Instead, the country has kept its land border closed, frustrating travellers who want to drive — not fly — to the U.S.

Canadian April Umbenhower lives a short, 70-kilometre drive across the border from her American husband, Steven Husak. Even so, she can only fly to the U.S. to visit him — a trip that first takes her 370 kilometres in the other direction, to Toronto to board a plane. (Submitted by April Umbenhower)

"There's no rhyme or reason to these closures," said Devon Weber, of Montreal, whose parents live in Long Island, N.Y. "What science shows that it's safer to fly on a crowded plane than to travel in your own private vehicle across the border?"

As an American citizen, Weber is actually able to drive to see her parents. The problem, she said, is that her Canadian husband can't join her. 

Last October, Weber founded Let Us Reunite, an advocacy group for cross-border families affected by the U.S. land border closure. She argues the current U.S. travel rules disadvantage Canadians who can't afford the high cost of flying — on top of COVID-19 test fees for travellers. 

"It's a classist policy," said Weber. "Not everyone has hundreds of dollars laying around to be able to fly to see their family."

'I feel helpless'

Although she's fully vaccinated, American Terri Renker, of Redford, Mich., currently isn't able to travel to nearby Windsor, Ont., to visit her Canadian husband; she's caring for her mother who's dying of breast cancer. 

Renker's husband, Sean Hartigan, said he can only visit his wife sporadically, because he must take time off work, buy a pricey flight to Detroit and make the long drive to Toronto to board the plane. 

If he could simply drive across the border, Hartigan said he could visit much more often to help Renker care for her mother. 

"I feel helpless; like I just can't drive across [in] 20 minutes to help her out," said Hartigan. "It's depressing, it's a mental strain."

Canadian Sean Hartigan says he can only make occasional trips to the U.S. to visit his American wife, Terri Renker, because of the flight requirement. They live about a 20-minute drive apart: Hartigan in Windsor, Ont., and Renker in Redford, Mich. (Submitted by Terri Renker)

CBC News asked the DHS, the White House, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) why the land border remains closed to Canadian travellers, but flying into the country is OK.

The State Department said to contact the White House and DHS. CBP said to contact DHS. Neither DHS nor the White House responded to repeated inquiries. 

Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., points out that the pandemic-related rules for air passengers were set up under a different president: Donald Trump. 

"Air travel was a Trump administration call," she said. "So that's part of the issue."

That administration introduced the current regulations, where foreigners can fly into the U.S. as long as they haven't visited a specified list of countries in the past 14 days deemed high-risk. Canada has never been on the high-risk list. 

But questions remain around why the current Biden administration didn't follow suit after Canada reopened its side of the land border to fully vaccinated Americans — particularly while it is still allowing Canadians to fly to the country. 

What's the holdup?

Some political experts have suggested the U.S. won't reopen its northern land border until it's ready to reopen its shared southern land border with Mexico, which is also closed to non-essential travel. 

Reopening the Mexico border is arguably more complicated, because the U.S. has yet to decide when to scrap Title 42: a Trump-era COVID-19 policy that allows for the immediate expulsion of migrants seeking asylum. 

The decision to reopen the northern and southern land borders doesn't have to be made in tandem, said Ted Sobel, a Homeland Security attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Canada.  

"We're certainly not under any legal restriction to have the same policy, but we do find that we have a consistency of [public health] issues that we are looking at," Sobel said at a conference earlier this month. 

U.S. extends border restrictions with Canada until Sept. 21

29 days ago
3:24
The U.S Department of Homeland Security said that the delta variant and case counts are the reasons for keeping the country's land border closed. 3:24

Trautman suggests the main reason why the U.S. hasn't reopened its northern land border is because the Biden administration has yet to devise a plan for screening land travellers.

"Are you going to require vaccines? Are you going to require tests? What's going to be required? And then they're going to have to figure out how they're going to handle that data."

Trautman said she also believes putting such a plan in place is not a top priority for the U.S. right now — especially considering Canada-U.S. trade continues and Canadians can fly to the U.S.

"The urgency is not there," she said. "You have Afghanistan … and you do have other political priorities within the White House that, I think, are sort of allowing the Biden administration to kind of kick the can down the road."

But Weber, of Let Us Reunite, wants the U.S. government to know that reopening the northern land border is a top priority for cross-border families affected by the closure.

"This is something that we think about every day," she said. "And it affects our lives every day."

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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