HOULTON, Maine — People and communities on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are anxiously waiting to find out when they can be reunited with family and friends and regain cross-border customers for their businesses.
Now politicians on both sides of the aisle, and the border, have begun to speak up about the issue as the one-year anniversary of the border closure approaches.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is calling for immediate easing of restrictions, though other U.S. and Canadian politicians have said that a reopening sometime in July is most likely for people to begin crossing the world’s longest border again.
The strict border restrictions between Maine and New Brunswick have brought many hardships upon Maine’s border communities, most of which are located in Collins’ native Aroostook County, Collins said.
“I believe that we could implement procedures, such as requiring proof of a recent negative test or vaccination, to begin safely loosening the restrictions, which would be beneficial to families, the economy and small businesses that rely on Canadian customers,” Collins said.
The Canada Institute, part of the influential Washington, D.C., think tank The Wilson Center, has formed a joint task force consisting of former politicians from the U.S. and Canada with the goal of determining how to safely reopen the border. The task force is looking to submit a proposal to both governments regarding a safe reopening plan sometime in the next several weeks.
Though the task force has yet to commit to any particular set of policies, Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec and a member of the task force, said he envisioned a possible reopening soon if Canada could reach a point where its population aged 60 and older would have access to vaccines against COVID-19.
“It would be immensely helpful for a short-term opening because it means we could manage the risk,” Charest said. “And then in the longer term we’re going to look at issues of, will there be a digital health passport? There could be something like that, and we’ll make recommendations going down that line.”
Charest said that he thought border reopening could come sometime in July, a view echoed by U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins, D-New York, who is co-chairperson of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus in the House of Representatives. Higgins also called for a partial reopening by Memorial Day in a letter addressed to President Joe Biden. The task force met with Higgins on March 10.
Parts of the United States, including Maine, have begun allowing vaccinations for people age 60 and older, but Canada is lagging behind its southern neighbor in its vaccine rollout. The population of Canadians who have received at least one dose of the vaccine stood at only 3.63 percent as of Feb. 27, compared with more than 18 percent in the United States. In Maine, more than 21 percent of the population has been vaccinated with at least one dose as of Wednesday.
Charest also cautioned that hurdles remain for reopening the border.
“There’s a lot of unknowns, like the [virus] variants,” he said. “The vaccines are working against the variants, and different vaccines are working against different variants, which is encouraging. But there are still a lot of unknowns.”
The land border between the two countries was closed on March 21 of last year and has been renewed every month since. Canada has made some exceptions for family members and people holding dual citizenship,but recently tightened restrictions after the discovery of new variants in the country. The Maine-New Brunswick border has also been far more restrictive, preventing even family members from traveling across the last two months.
The responsibility of deciding whether the border should reopen on the U.S. side falls on the Department of Homeland Security, and its newly appointed secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Collins recently sent a letter to Mayorkas echoing her call for reopening, one of several she has sent to the department regarding the northern border over the course of the pandemic. Attempts to reach DHS for comment have so far been unsuccessful.