B.C. health minister warns U.S. border to be closed for 'significant period of time'
VANCOUVER -- As the federal government extends the ban on non-essential travel with the U.S. by another 30 days, British Columbia’s health minister has made it clear he doesn’t expect it to be reopened next month — likely even longer.
Adrian Dix told reporters Tuesday that while he’s pleased with the federal government’s decision as they have jurisdiction over borders, he wouldn’t support reopening the borders to leisure travel on June 21 unless the United States makes great strides in its COVID-19 containment efforts.
"We think it’s going to be almost certainly needed after one month from now and it’s going to be a significant period of time," he said. "We are very hopeful, of course, that everyone in the United States to a maximum degree stays safe from this and recovers from this as quickly as possible but the situation is much less clear there — I’m not convinced that it will clear sufficiently in the next month to change at least my mind about whether we should open the border. I think it’s going to be significantly longer than that for visitors."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first restricted cross-border travel to essential goods and services on March 21, and it has been extended every 30 days since then. Tuesday morning, Trudeau announced the latest extension to "keep people in both of our countries safe."
The Canada Border Services Agency says last week, land crossing were down 88 per cent (95 per cent for non-truckers) while U.S. air travel was down 99 per cent; they say those figures are consistent with the week before.
In response to questions about how keen they are to visit the U.S. for shopping or vacations, British Columbians expressed hesitation due to high infection numbers and a reluctance by many Americans to wear masks or observe physical distancing measures in public.
In Washington state, where the population is 7.6 million compared to B.C.’s 5.1 million residents, they’ve seen roughly five times as many confirmed infections (18,611) compared to B.C. (2,446), with a similar comparison of deaths (1,002 in Wash., 146 in B.C.)
Bellingham businesses struggling
The mayor of Bellingham, where many Metro Vancouver residents will go for cheap gas and groceries, describes the border shutdown as having "a huge impact" on local businesses.
“Nearly seven million Canadians come across the border and into Whatcom County every single year spending $138 million in our local economy," said Seth Fleetwood, emphasizing that his county has significantly lower infections and deaths than the rest of the state. "We have a local health department task force that’s working right now with merchants from a variety of different economic sectors and they’re essentially putting together a series of recipes for health protocols for each sector and expectations that need to be in place before they can open up."
Whereas B.C. began Phase 2 of its economic recovery on Tuesday, Fleetwood said Bellingham is still a couple weeks away from doing so; the state has laid out eligibility requirements for counties to apply for Phase 2 based on infection numbers.
Tourism sector counting on staycationers
With the premier’s position on keeping the border closed crystal clear well before the prime minister extended the border closure, B.C.’s tourism industry has been planning for a long-term closure and hopes locals will make up for some of the losses outside travellers had brought to the provincial economy.
"There’s quite a substantial amount of money that British Columbians take to other locations every year," said Destination BC CEO, Marsha Walden. "I know the financial circumstances for British Columbians and Canadians will be very different this year because of COVID-19, so it may not be that you would spend the same amount of money that you would normally on a holiday — but that’s why sticking close to home has so many great advantages."
Walden points out that whether people prefer relaxing beach vacations, hiking and fishing, or cultural exploration, the province has options for all budgets, with restaurants, cafes, bed and breakfasts, artisans and many others who are deeply appreciative of the support from their fellow British Columbians.
"They’re in deep distress, like many are, but tourism more so than most," said Walden.
If the number of COVID-19 infections stays low, Phase 3 of the province’s economic recovery plan, which plans for overnight camping and hotel stays, could begin as early as June 1. But the province’s top doctor has already urged people to avoid planning too far in advance this summer.