Higgins calls for expanded border travel exemptions

There’s very little traffic in either direction this past March at the Rainbow Bridge after the border was closed to non-essential traffic. (Paul Battson)

ALBANY — The closure of the border between the U.S. and Canada to non-essential travel is now extended until at least Feb. 21, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

The restrictions have had an impact on tourism-related businesses in Niagara County as well as New York's North Country.

"We'll continue to do whatever is necessary to keep Canadians safe," Trudeau said on Twitter.

The closure, which has been extended several times, had been set to expire Jan. 21.

But coronavirus infections have continued to spread on both sides of the border. In recent weeks, a variant of the virus, known as the U.K. strain, has been turned up in dozens of people in the United States, including several who underwent testing in New York.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, said the extension of restrictions was expected.

But she noted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has put forward "new conditions that could be used to ease restrictions for residents and business owners in the North Country, such as considering the degree of health risk indicated in the Center for Disease Control’s Travel Health Notice for Canada and Mexico."

Public health conditions in border communities, such as those in the North Country, and the staffing levels of local Border Patrol Officers, would be factors that would be evaluated in any restriction plan going forward, Stefanik said.

"We are now closer to a viable, long-term solution on this important issue, and I am committed to working with the incoming administration to implement a comprehensive plan to safely reopen the border,” Stefanik, co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, said in a statement.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, expressed optimism the restrictions will be addressed by the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

“Despite our numerous requests to U.S. border agencies, no plan has been developed for the eventual reopening of the border between the United States and Canada," Higgins said.

He added that while he does not expected immediate changes at the border, "I do believe the new administration will work with focus to repair relationships with our allies and put the United States on a healing path.”

Pandemic-driven restrictions at the border have been in effect since March 24.

The border stretches for 5,525 miles, including 445 miles of the border New York shares with Ontario and Quebec.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com .

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