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New stats show historic plunge of Canada-U.S. travel amid pandemic restrictions

Newly released statistics illustrate the spectacular plunge in cross-border movement last week after Canada and the United States agreed to limit non-essential movement.

The effect of the pandemic restrictions: an 82 per cent drop in border-crossings from the U.S. into Canada by land, and a 96 per cent plunge in arrivals on U.S. flights.

Those were the figures released Tuesday night by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), showing travel for the week of March 23-29 compared to the same week a year earlier.

While commercial travel is still broadly permitted, it has nonetheless been walloped by the broader COVID-19 crisis; the CBSA figures show a 24 per cent drop in truck drivers entering Canada compared to the same week in 2019. 

The statistics highlight the pandemic-induced effect on the economy and society.

Amid the mounting case numbers, the Canadian government placed border restrictions on foreign nationals on March 16 and then, in conjunction with the U.S., suspended non-essential travel along the border on March 21.

The numbers extend beyond U.S. travel.

The CBSA said the volume of international air travellers into Canada was also down 92 per cent compared to the same week a year ago, while commercial air traffic sustained less damage, declining 16 per cent globally.

The language of the Canada-U.S. agreement allowing some travel is a bit vague.

It says permanent residents, students, military, cargo and essential workers can cross the border. But it also cites medical purposes as an example of essential travel — without elaborating further.

A Canadian immigration lawyer who works with commercial travellers, Andrea Vaitzner, said cross-border movement has become extremely complicated.

Vaitzner says the rules are applied differently, in different places.

For example, she said U.S. customs officials at one New York border crossing are agreeing to process Canadians who hold TN and L-1 U.S. work visas; at another nearby New York crossing, she said U.S. officials are refusing those visas.

As a result, she’s advising commercial clients to avoid travel if they can. And most people are.

“Fewer and fewer Canadians are travelling to the U.S. for work unless it is to provide an essential service,” said Vaitzner, a lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright in Montreal.

“Companies that can continue operating [with workers working] remotely are continuing to do so.”  

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