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New CBSA numbers show dramatic plunge in Canada-U.S. travel amid pandemic restrictions

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Newly released statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency illustrate the spectacular plunge in cross-border movement last week after Canada and the United States agreed to limit non-essential travel between the two countries because of the widening coronavirus pandemic.

A truck makes its way toward the U.S. border on an almost deserted highway in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, south of Montreal, last weekend.(Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

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

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 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 movement across borders.

Amid the mounting number of COVID-19 cases, the Canadian government placed border restrictions on foreign nationals on March 16 and then, in conjunction with the U.S., suspended non-essential travel across the border on March 21.

Restrictions applied differently at different crossings

The CBSA numbers extend beyond U.S. travel.

The agency said the volume of international air travellers into Canada was also down — by 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, 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."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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