During the COVID-19 pandemic, attention to travel measures has largely focused on air travel. This includes the potential use of “vaccine passports” to open up international borders again. However, for countries with extensive land borders, there are special challenges.
Canada and the United States share the world’s longest undefended land border. While the U.S. is Canada’s most important trading partner, it is also the world’s epicentre for coronavirus infections and deaths.
COVID-19 variants of concern are now present in almost all U.S. states. The spread of these variants in the U.S. points to the need for Canada to review the adequacy of public health risk management at land crossings.
Current land border policy
Since March 21, 2020, non-essential travel has been restricted at Canada-U.S. land crossings. Outbound travel for Canadian nationals and permanent residents, and inbound and outbound travel for non-nationals (except Alaska-bound U.S. citizens) are not permitted.
On Jan. 29, 2021, the Canadian government announced new measures for non-essential travel in response to variants of concern. Arrivals by air now have testing and hotel quarantine requirements, and those by land have testing requirements but can self-quarantine or isolate.
Given that hundreds of thousands of essential and non-essential travellers continue to enter Canada by land each month, differences in policy for air and land travel have been questioned.
According to Canada’s Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, the main reason for this difference is logistics. With 117 two-way land crossings, comparable measures “simply aren’t possible, given the existing infrastructure that’s available.”
As a team of travel health and pandemic experts, we suggest that there are solutions to this seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Less land border crossings
There are insufficient resources to provide screening, testing and quarantine measures at all land crossings comparable to air arrivals. Based on our study of travel-related measures during COVID-19, one option is to substantially reduce the number of crossings kept open. This is similar to the funnelling of air arrivals through four airports, and has been a successful strategy in other countries.
After closing some land crossings, the government can then designate selected crossings for incoming non-essential travel only. This prevents bottlenecks hindering essential travel. Given around seven per cent of land crossings during the pandemic are deemed non-essential, and that the volume of land travel has declined by around 90 per cent during the pandemic, temporarily closing some border crossings is also practical.
Crossings remaining open for non-essential travellers should be those that had higher vehicle volumes pre-pandemic such as the Peace Arch, B.C., and Rainbow Bridge, Ont. High traffic crossings already have the necessary inbound and outbound road networks to allow ease of access. They generally also have hotels nearby. This can enable an extension of mandatory quarantine at designated sites for travellers entering by land. These crossings should also be within a reasonable driving distance of a hospital should there be a need for health care. The border crossings themselves would need to have sufficient staff to accommodate any enhancements made to testing protocols.
By streamlining land border crossings, on-site public health resources available can be tailored to specific types of travellers. For non-essential travel, alongside enhanced screening, testing and quarantine, arrivals should be provided with tailored information.
For example, in the coming weeks thousands of “snowbirds” are expected to return to Canada by land. These long-stay travellers should be directed to reliable sources of information regarding vaccine roll-out in their province as many will fall within priority groups. Those who were inoculated abroad should be given details on how to register this information in their personal vaccination record.
Read more: Why some snowbirds are flying south despite the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions
Transport workers comprise a large proportion of essential travellers crossing by land. The World Economic Forum ranks transport workers as being at highest risk among approximately 950 non-health occupations during COVID-19. Many Canadian truckers have been concerned about potential exposure to the coronavirus in the U.S. and risk of infecting family members upon their return.
We agree with calls for transport workers to be vaccinated as a priority group. In the meantime, rapid testing should be provided at land crossings designated to serve essential travellers.
All entry points
A more coherent Canadian strategy on border management requires consistency in the measures applied for air, land and sea arrivals. At a time when COVID-19 and its worrisome variants are being brought into Canada via travel, reducing points of entry has several benefits.
Limiting the number of crossings enables us to concentrate resources and enhance public health risk management. This would also facilitate any plans to introduce more testing or even vaccine passports for essential travel. And the incentive for travellers to circumvent air travel measures by diverting to land crossings would be reduced.