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Canada-U.S. border rules and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic explained

Confused over Canada-U.S. border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Perhaps you’re wondering why you see U.S. license plates in a local parking lot when the Canada-U.S. land border is closed to tourists.

Or you’re stumped why your neighbour was able to fly to New York last week, but you can’t make the five-minute drive across the Windsor-Detroit border to visit family.

Here’s what you need to know about current Canada-U.S. border restrictions and how they may impact you.

Canada-U.S. land border rules
To help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Canada and the U.S. agreed to close their shared land border to non-essential traffic starting on March 21. The agreement is reviewed every 30 days. So far, the border closure has been extended three times.

The current end date is July 21, and that date could be extended once again, particularly if the number of COVID-19 cases in some U.S. states continues to spike.

“I honestly don’t think the border will open until the end of the year,” said U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders. “Especially when you hear about more [COVID-19] cases in Arizona and Texas and all these southern states.”

The Canada-U.S. land border remains open to people making trips for essential reasons, such as for work or school.

On June 9, the Canadian government loosened its border restrictions to allow American visitors with immediate family in Canada to enter the country. Note that a boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t qualify as family and a common-law partner only qualifies if that person has lived with their significant other for at least a year.

Visiting family members must stay in Canada for at least 15 days and self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

The land border closure continues to frustrate many cross-border couples who can’t meet Canada’s requirements for reuniting with family.

Last year, Ian Geddes of Blaine, Wash., married Birgit Heinbach of Surrey, B.C. Until Heinbach gets her U.S. immigrant visa, the two are separated by the border.

Geddes said he can’t get enough time off work right now to complete a 14-day quarantine in Canada — before he can hang out with his wife and her son.

“It’s just a really tough situation,” said Geddes, who wishes the Canadian government would waive the self-quarantine requirement for immediate family.

“You should be allowed to cross into a country and see your wife,” he said. “Give us some kind of a concession.”

You can fly to the U.S.
Some Canadians may be surprised to learn they can still fly to the U.S. during the pandemic, even though the same rule doesn’t apply on the other side of the border.

With the exception of immediate family, Canada currently restricts all foreigners — including Americans — from visiting the country for non-essential travel via any mode of transportation.

The U.S., however, only prohibits visitors from entering its country if they’ve been in Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, the U.K. or 26 European countries in the Schengen Area 14 days prior.

Because of the bilateral agreement to close the Canada-U.S. land border, the only way Canadians can currently travel to the U.S. is by air. Saunders said dozens of his Canadian clients have flown to the U.S. with no complications during the land border closure.

“There’s a back door wide open,” said Saunders, whose office sits close to the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash. “They can just go in through the airport, and so that’s what people are doing in droves.”

Canadian air passengers also likely won’t have to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in the U.S. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that international travellers do so, but it’s not a requirement unless specified by a particular region or state.

When Canadians return home, they must self-isolate for 14 days — as per federal rules.

Heinbach plans to fly to the U.S. in August to visit Geddes in Blaine. It’s a frustrating solution for the couple because, even though they live in different countries, their homes are only eight kilometres apart — typically a 10-minute drive, depending on border traffic.

But now Heinbach must fly from Vancouver to Seattle to visit Geddes in Blaine — a journey of more than three hours by plane and car.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Geddes.

U.S. licence plates in Canada
Some Banff, Alta., residents have complained that they’ve recently spotted American tourists and U.S. licence plates in the resort town.

“Two days ago, I saw four people get out of a car, out of a Texas vehicle,” Banff resident Nina Stewart told CBC News on June 12. “They were laughing and joking about how easy it was to get into Banff.”

Canada allows Americans to drive through the country to Alaska for essential reasons, such as for work or returning to their home. However, they’re not to make unnecessary stops along the way.

RCMP said officers fined seven Americans this week who were supposed to be driving straight to Alaska, but instead were caught taking in the sights at Banff National Park. The fines, issued under the Alberta Health Act, were for $1,200 each.

“As much as you’d want to stop and see the sights … that’s just inappropriate,” said Fraser Logan, spokesperson for the RCMP in Alberta.

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