Border reopening plan leaves unanswered questions: biz groups

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Businesses are welcoming news that the Liberal government has set a timeline for reopening the border, but industry reps say there are still many crucial questions that have to be answered.

“We’re going to need much more detail how exactly it’s going to work. For example, is the land border reopening the same time as airports? Are all airports going to be open for international travel or just the ones that are used today?” said Canadian Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Perrin Beatty.

On Thursday evening, the government said in a release the aim is to allow fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents to visit Canada by mid-August, and fully vaccinated visitors from all countries by early September.

That would be contingent on continuing “our current positive path of vaccination rate and public health conditions.” More details will be shared early next week, the release said.

The U.S. border has been closed for non-essential travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, and most travellers from other countries are also barred from entering Canada. The restrictions in place for the U.S. border are set to expire next week, on July 21.

Industry reps have been pushing the government to release a plan for reopening the border for months. Earlier this week, France also called for the Canadian government to allow French visitors, warning the relationship between the two countries could suffer otherwise.

The timeline released Thursday means “we at least have a notional timetable around which we can plan,” said Beatty.

It’s not the detailed plan industry has been calling for, but it is something businesses can work with, said Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.

“The government has made very clear that it has no intention of putting out, on this issue or frankly on many other issues, any kind of a clear coherent plan and what we are getting is elements of things, as circumstances warrant,” he said. “But we are where we are and we’re pleased with the direction and the clarity … so we’ll take it.”

The timeline of the reopening could potentially overlap with a late summer election campaign — and if there is an election in the coming months, Hyder said it shouldn’t change the reopening plans.

“That cannot be an excuse for delaying or further stalling the execution of whatever is being announced. So an announcement in and of itself is insufficient. What matters is the successful execution of that announcement,” he said.

“And that means making sure that election or no election, people can reliably plan on what they can expect at the border.”

One of the industries that has been most affected by the border closure is tourism. On Wednesday, representatives from the Montreal tourism industry held a press conference calling on the government to reopen the border before the summer is entirely lost.

The mid-August and early September timeline means that “for the second year in a row, we’re going to lose most or all of the summer tourist season” because most people have made their plans by now, Beatty said.

“We’ll be able to capture some of the latter part of it. But only a small amount, and it’s important to recognize that when you look at tourism, a day in August is worth a weekend in November.”

Hyder said businesses “will all do hurry-up offense to get ready to seize particularly the tourist season that still remains between now and the Canadian winter.”

We’re pleased with the direction and the clarity

The 30-day window should be enough for tourism-based businesses like hotels and restaurants to prepare to open up, at least partially, he said. One challenge is that many have to hire staff, and that’s an issue “that has caused a lot of people a lot of anxiety and stress,” as businesses wonder whether former employees will come back to work, and if not, whether they’ll be able to find new staff, Hyder explained.

Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, said the airports will be ready.

“We’d like to see the international travel resume at other airports. There were quite a few airports prior to the pandemic that had service to the United States and they are eager to have their ability to accept international travellers restored as quickly as possible,” he said.

Some of the major unanswered questions for airports include whether hotel quarantine will be entirely eliminated and how testing on arrival will be performed, Gooch said. Another issue is what rules will apply to children — because kids under 12 can’t be vaccinated, they have to quarantine on arrival.

Gooch noted that’s “certainly going to be a deterrent for families from travelling that might otherwise have travelled.”

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