WASHINGTON, D.C. – The director of the Mexico Institute says he does not see land ports of entry being fully reopened until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available.

Duncan Wood spoke about the current travel ban in operation in North America during a webinar hosted by the Olaf Palme Center in Mexico City on Tuesday. 

Wood noted that a 30-day ban has been in effect since late March to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He pointed out that it keeps getting renewed each month by the United States, Mexico and Canada governments.

“The 30-day monthly renewals, there is no sign yet that that is going to end. I suspect it is going to continue until we have widely available vaccines,” Wood said.

“That is when we are going to come up against the issue of, who’s doing a better job of controlling the virus.”

Wood noted that it was Canada that first implemented a travel ban with the United States. The United States and Mexico followed suit. The border bridge ban applies to what is termed “non-essential” travel, which includes those wishing to cross a border to visit family or go shopping.

The ban does not affect commerce and so trucks and “essential” workers are allowed to cross back and forth. And, the ban did not extend to airlines, so tourists, for example, can fly ban and forth between the United States and Mexico, or the United States and Canada.

“Remember that this was a Canadian initiative. Canada has a long history of anticipating and preempting U.S. actions. They did it after 9/11 by looking at a smart borders approach,” Wood said.

“And they did it again here by saying to the United States, look, we are worried about the spread of COVID in the United States. We think we need to put in place border restrictions. And the United States said, yes. Mexico and the United States followed suit.”

Wood, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he has a lot of sympathy with border communities who are missing out on economic activity due to the travel ban.

“None of us who deal with the border on a regular basis or who depend on it, we don’t like the border restrictions. But, in this case, I would say this was a successful negotiation of partial border closings. It was not imposed unilaterally by one side or the other,” Wood explained.

“The governments came together and talked about it. And they have managed to keep the border open for essential services and essential products. It has been really bad, however, for border communities because of all the cross-border shopping, which hasn’t happened. It has been really bad for families because families haven’t been able to get together in the way they did before.”

Wood said he has also heard about “mistakes and abuses” related to the restrictions.

“But, overall, as much as I dislike those kind of restrictions, I would say this is actually a good example for us to refer to where we saw a negotiated solution to a common problem.” 

Wood said that in the light of COVID-19 discussion could turn to border health passports.

“The next conversation that we need to have in North America is, alright, so after 9/11 we worked towards trusted traveler programs, Global Entry, Sentri, Nexus, etc., those kind of programs where travelers would give up their information, their personal data ahead of time in order to have an easier time at the border,” Wood said.

“It is time for us to think about health passports. It is time for us to think about a 21st Century solution to that question.”

Wood said he was on a call the other day and somebody recalled the days, long ago, when one had to show a vaccination record in order to cross the border. 

“I wasn’t aware of this. It is going to be a 21st Century version of that. Look at a lot of sports these days, like soccer, you and I, Steve, we follow the Premier League in England. When the players show up for a game they have to show their health passport on their phone, on their cell phone,” Wood said.

“It is going to be some variation of that. You will have to submit information ahead of time to the border authorities which show that in the last week, say, you have had a COVID test which came back negative. And as the technology improves, and as the cost of testing goes down and becomes faster, that will become easier and easier to do.”

The “Steve” Wood was referring to was Rio Grande Guardian editor Steve Taylor, who moderated the webinar. The webinar was titled U.S. Elections: Impact on North America. Two other experts were on the webinar, María-Cristina Rosas, director of the Olof Palme Center for Analysis and Research on Peace, Security and Development in Mexico City, and Dr. Stephen Randall, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Asked about the travel ban at the U.S.-Mexico border, Rosas said: 

“I know there is some pressure in the border communities to reopen, as has been mentioned. Shopping has diminished. I see an impact also on health tourism. You know that many Americans and Canadians cross the border for treatments. Many Americans come into Mexico because they can purchase cheaper treatments, and a better deal when it comes to surgical procedures and such. And also medications. That has suffered due to these restrictions,” Rosas said.

“But, I am not sure Mexico is yet ready for this (reopening). We have to think about the border with the U.S., but also the south of the border, between Mexico and Central American countries, that is critical too for this.”

In his remarks about the potential re-opening of land ports of entry, the University of Calgary’s Randall said:

“I think, clearly, Duncan is correct. A very successful negotiation was initiated by Canada and the United States. There is no appetite here reopening that border at this stage. In fact, there have been tightening efforts to restrict illegal American tourists coming into Canada in the last while.”

That said, Randall said he could foresee a slight relaxation of the U.S.-Canadian travel ban occurring soon.

“There has been, however, and I think we will continue to see, a loosening of restrictions on family reunifications and that is already happening and it is particularly associated with Thanksgiving in both countries and with Christmas coming and so on. You have to apply to visit family but I think we will see some loosening in that respect,” Randall said.

“But, the bottom line is, Canada is just a wee bit better than the United States on the COVID crisis and we want to try to keep it that way.”

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