NIAGARA FALLS, NY (WIVB) — One of the most powerful voices in Washington DC came to the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls on Wednesday to turn up the heat on efforts to loosen Covid restrictions that have halted non-essential travel across the United States-Canada border. “I stand here today because we can’t wait any longer,” said US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer. He said a plan could be worked out in a matter of weeks if the US Department of Homeland Security officials would just come to some agreement with their Canadian counterparts.

“I’m urging the Canadian and American governments to declare that any vaccinated individual with familial, business, property, educational, medical or other interests be allowed to cross the border,” said Schumer. “Eventually, after that, they should allow anyone to cross the border.”

But Canada is lagging behind the US in vaccination rates, and on Tuesday, the Canadian Prime Minister was talking in terms of months, not weeks.

“Now is not the time to travel,” said Justin Trudeau. “We are all hopeful we’re gonna get back to normal in the coming months and start traveling again, but the reality is, we’re not there yet. We’re still very much in a third wave. We still need to get more and more people vaccinated across this country and get those numbers down.”

Dottie Gallagher is the president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. “We need this to happen. Fall is too late. Let’s please, please President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau, let’s work on this for all of us.”

As if the past year hasn’t been frustrating enough for Western New Yorkers who own cottages in Southern Ontario, Senator Schumer said there is now a measure in Canada’s fiscal budget that imposes an additional one percent tax on non-Canadians who own residential properties. “People can’t visit these homes and now they’re taxing them because they can’t visit these homes. That’s got to stop.”

Schumer sent the following letter to the Secretaries of Homeland Security on both sides of the border;

Dear Secretaries Blinken and Mayorkas:

I write to urge the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to work in coordination with your Canadian counterparts to finally develop a transparent, bilateral, and public plan based on public health data and guidance – with specific standards, protocols, and metrics – to safely reopen the Northern Border to non-essential travel. Similarly, I strongly urge you to negotiate an interim expansion of the essential travel designation to include the thousands of impacted New Yorkers, in addition to millions of other vaccinated American and Canadian citizens. Having endured one of the deadliest chapters in New York’s history, the residents along the border are ready to turn the page and re-establish the familiar links to their loved ones, their property, and their prosperity. 

While the fight against the COVID pandemic remains paramount, we must acknowledge the progress New Yorkers have made in rolling up their sleeves, getting vaccinated, and reducing the burden of the virus. Due to the rising rates of vaccinated Americans and the subsequent decline in cases in New York and elsewhere, it has become abundantly clear that an agreement can and should be reached to safely accommodate the border communities without compromising the fight against COVID-19.  A bi-national plan with clearly defined benchmarks will provide clarity and transparency to a confusing and frustrating process.  Such an agreement is critical to safely and coherently reopening the border for non-essential travel as quickly as the underlying data would permit.  I ask that this detailed plan be publicly released with all due speed.

As you work bilaterally to develop this plan, I further request that you work with our Canadian allies to immediately expand the definition of essential travel to include that of citizens with family, property, educational, medical, or business interests, who have also fulfilled their civic responsibility to get vaccinated. As we approach the summer season, thousands of New Yorkers and Canadians alike are facing the prospect of being cut-off from their properties for another year. Compounding this headache is the report that the Canadian government is preparing to levy additional taxes on underutilized vacation properties, despite the inability of property owners to reach their homes. 

Additionally, I once again ask that you work with your Canadian counterparts to clarify the policy for boaters who traverse the border mid-transit. Boaters, including tour boat companies that cross the border without docking, do not increase the spread of COVID-19 and should not be unduly penalized by the border policy.

Lastly, I request that you develop a plan to ensure the safety of our border personnel as we reopen the border. It is incumbent upon both the United States and Canada to provide adequate testing, vaccination, and protective equipment to CBP and all federal employees along the entirety of the Northern Border. I also ask that CBP evaluate current policies and processes to increase efficiency and touchless travel at ports of entry. Without ensuring the safety of our frontline personnel and adapting our port procedures to a new COVID reality, we cannot hope to return to the normalcy that has defined U.S.-Canadian border crossings in New York and beyond.

Once the epicenter of the global health and economic pandemic, New Yorkers have worked diligently to significantly reduce the spread of COVID infections and have led the nation in vaccinations week after week; it is now incumbent on the federal government to do their part and aid their desperate desire to fully rebuild and recover. This recovery cannot be done, and I will not rest, until bilateral collaboration to safely reopen the United States and Canadian land border is an utmost priority and a plan for a full reopening is publicly released.