Why Canada Won’t Open Its Doors

COVID-19 case counts are plummeting and vaccinations are up, but hardly anyone can get across the border.

Two cars wait at a large border crossing.
Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

If you ask Roger Dow, what’s happening at the border is “monstrous”—a prolonged disaster that gets worse by the day. “It is a crisis,” he told me by phone last week. Dow is the CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, and he wasn’t talking about the thousands of migrants surging illegally across the southern border with Mexico or the unaccompanied children detained in overcrowded shelters. Dow was talking about the 5,500-mile northern divide between the United States and Canada—and the “crisis” there is that hardly anyone can get across at all.

Fifteen months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S.-Canada border remains closed to all but essential travel, cutting off families, would-be tourists, and billions of dollars in commerce. Travel from the U.S. to Canada is down more than 80 percent since before the pandemic. Both countries have imposed strict limits on who can cross the border, but Canada’s restrictions are tighter, and its enforcement is far more severe. Travelers who fly into Canada must land at one of four airports and then pay to spend the first three nights of a 14-day mandatory quarantine at a designated “stopover” hotel, at a cost the U.S. government says could exceed $1,600. There are no exceptions, even for fully vaccinated people or Canadian citizens. The restrictions have essentially forced Canada’s lone Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and its lone NBA team, the Toronto Raptors, into exile in the U.S.

With case counts plummeting and vaccinations rising, most states have relaxed or eliminated restrictions on travel and businesses. But in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears in no hurry to end the shutdown. The current limits are due to expire on June 21, but he has said that before he begins to loosen the rules, he wants at least 75 percent of Canadians to receive a first shot and 20 percent to be fully vaccinated. Although Canada long lagged behind the United States in vaccinations, it has caught up recently, at least in first doses. At the end of May, nearly 68 percent of the adult population had gotten one shot—a higher percentage than in the United States. But just 7 percent had gotten the entire regimen. (Canada is following the U.K. model of delaying second doses to partially inoculate its population at a faster rate.)

The delay is alarming businesses on both sides of the border that worry they’ll miss out on tourism revenue from a second lost summer season. “We’re an industry that’s been absolutely devastated,” Beth Potter, the president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told me. On Monday, the trade group launched a campaign to pressure the Canadian government to reopen the border, urging citizens to contact their member of Parliament.

That Potter and Dow want the crossing reopened immediately isn’t surprising; they’re paid to advocate for their industry. But Trudeau’s lack of urgency is also angering American politicians whose constituents rely on cross-border travel. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and Representative Elise Stefanik, the upstate New York lawmaker who replaced the deposed Liz Cheney in the House Republican leadership, have beseeched Biden-administration officials to work with their Canadian counterparts on a reopening plan. Other Republicans have complained that while Canadians can cross the border to be vaccinated in the United States, Americans who own homes in Canada can’t access them. A bipartisan coalition of New England governors has also written to Biden and Trudeau asking that they be allowed to give excess vaccine supply to Canadian provinces to facilitate the speedier reopening of the border. Trudeau has said he won’t be rushed. “We'll make our decisions based on the interests of Canadians and not based on what other countries want," he told reporters last month.

I heard a sampling of this frustration when I flew to Burlington, Vermont, in early May. My flight was overbooked, which was a surprise considering the overall drop in air travel at the time and that Vermont was in the middle of its rainy spring season, a slow stretch after the skiers have left but before the summer vacationers arrive. My seatmate was a Canadian citizen who spent the beginning of the flight loudly cursing out his government for making it so hard, and so expensive, for him to return home to Montreal. The young man had chosen to fly into Burlington and pay several hundred dollars to be driven across the border, because that was still far cheaper than it would have been to fly into Montreal and buy a hotel room for the required three nights. He was trying to take advantage of a gaping loophole in the Canadian restrictions: Travelers crossing the border by land, rather than by air, must still quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, but they don’t have to stay in a designated hotel for part of that time.

Canadian officials say the different policies for drivers and fliers are so that truckers shipping goods like food and medicine—who conduct most of the land crossings—don’t have to quarantine in a hotel every time they make a trip. But the quirk has created an odd set of economic winners and losers. The Burlington airport is operating closer to its pre-pandemic capacity than many larger regional hubs that typically outperform Burlington, its director of aviation, Gene Richards, told me. He attributed the recent surge to a number of factors, including Vermont’s success in fighting COVID-19 and vaccinating its residents. He acknowledged, however, that one reason is its proximity to major Canadian cities. Prices on flights to Buffalo, New York, which is a two-hour drive from Toronto, began rising swiftly earlier this spring, and on the West Coast, the small airport in Bellingham, Washington, saw a spike in traffic from Canadians trying to return by land to British Columbia.

Jim Maynard has owned a car service in Burlington for the past 10 years. He told me his company nearly collapsed during the pandemic; he sold off two of his cars and garaged several others so he wouldn’t have to pay insurance on them. But business took off this spring after Canada added the hotel requirement for people traveling by air. Now Maynard’s fleet is shuttling back and forth between Burlington and Montreal, Ottawa, and even Quebec City (a four-hour drive each way) to transport Canadians returning from Florida and willing to pay him about $400 to avoid the mandatory three-night hotel stay. Before the pandemic, only a small portion of Maynard’s trips went across the border. “We probably had our biggest month ever last month,” he told me. “It’s just off the charts.”

For every beneficiary of the tight border restrictions, however, many more businesses are suffering. Northern resorts and retailers in Vermont, for example, draw more than half of their revenue from Canadian travelers, Heather Pelham, the state’s commissioner of tourism and marketing, told me. “They are struggling to keep going,” she said. Dick Mazza is a longtime state senator who also owns a popular general store near the shore of Lake Champlain, less than an hour’s drive from the Canadian border. “I don’t think I delivered once to the marinas last summer,” he told me. “It used to be hundreds of Canadian boats visiting, and they spend money.”

The main explanation for Canada’s deliberate pace in loosening travel restrictions is that while the country has fared better than the United States overall during the pandemic, it has had a bumpier spring. In addition to Canada’s slower vaccine rollout, its COVID-19 case count, after subsiding in February and March, spiked in early April nearly to its wintertime peak. As recently as mid-May, the Ontario premier, Doug Ford, was even calling for tighter restrictions on land crossings to and from the U.S. The government has expressed little sympathy for citizens who left the country and now face arduous trips back, because many of those Canadians—snowbirds who spent the winter in the United States, for example—disregarded government warnings not to travel in the first place. Trudeau’s government also has yet to determine what proof it would require from vaccinated individuals—a politically thorny question in the United States, where some Republican-led states have outlawed so-called vaccine passports.

Still, pressure to at least partially reopen the border has been building for several weeks. A government advisory panel in Canada last month recommended lifting most restrictions for fully vaccinated people and some limits for those who have had one shot. On Tuesday, the White House announced that it was creating “expert working groups” along with Canada, Mexico, the U.K., and the European Union to explore how to safely restart international travel. In recent days, Trudeau has said a new policy that would relax restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers could be coming soon. The announcements brought a small measure of hope to businesses that depend on travelers between the United States and Canada. But neither came with a firm date, and for the time being, that meant the North American border that nearly everyone seems to want to open will instead remain closed.