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Consider exemptions to travel restrictions, border-state senators urge Trump


WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from states that share borders with Canada are urging President Donald Trump to preserve the flow of essential goods and services between the two countries, even if the global pandemic forces more stringent quarantines and travel restrictions in the United States.

New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, released a letter Monday urging the White House to consider the importance of bilateral travel to businesses, families and communities near the Canada-U.S. border.

"Many businesses in our states, including hospitals and medical equipment providers, depend upon travel across the northern border for essential supplies and personnel," it reads.

"In attempting to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, we must ensure that any new travel restrictions do not handicap these industries and their ability to respond to outbreaks quickly and effectively. Federal agencies and the Coronavirus Task Force will need to co-ordinate closely to ensure the necessary exemptions are made to travel restrictions."

The letter was co-signed by 18 other border-state lawmakers, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. 

It also called on Trump to provide "the appropriate exemptions to any domestic quarantines mandated by federal, state or local officials to ensure public health and safety."

While protecting public health is paramount, the letter continued, "it is critical that businesses Americans rely on to provide medical supplies and other essential goods do not see their supply chains and workforce compromised by restrictions on travel domestically and across the U.S. border."

Canada and the United States put a mutual ban in place early Saturday prohibiting casual, non-essential travel between the two countries as part of a joint effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Travel for work or school is still permitted, as are temporary foreign workers and long-haul truckers carrying shipments between the two countries.

Since the ban went into effect, traffic from Canada to the U.S. has dropped by 75 per cent, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security told a briefing call Monday.

"We have committed to having these restrictions in place for a limited time, but that limitation is hard to see the end of at the moment," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under the rules of the call.

"It is when the spread of the virus no longer poses a threat to the United States or to our neighbours." 

As for whether the U.S. is considering whether to add countries to its travel ban, the official said, "The answer, without having to name countries, is yes." 

Images from across the continent of people flouting public pleas to stay home and avoid congregating in large groups ripped around the internet over the weekend, fuelling fear of more stringent crackdowns on personal mobility.

It didn't take long: on Monday, Ontario and Quebec both ordered non-essential businesses to close, as did Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnston. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounded ready to do the same.

"Enough is enough. Go home and stay home," Trudeau said. "This is what we all need to be doing and we're going to make sure it happens."

Canadians who believe they are engaged in essential travel but encounter difficulties getting across the border can call for help using an expanded hotline established by the Canada Border Services Agency, said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"CBSA has very swiftly set up a hotline and a website that people can use if they are at the border and they feel they are engaged in essential crossing of the border and need some help getting across," she said.

"Canadians doing essential work who need to cross the border, please use that hotline to let us know if you are having difficulties."

The agency's Border Information Service, which usually operates under limited hours and provides recorded advice, is now available 24 hours a day and staffed by actual service agents. It can be reached at 1-800-461-9999.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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