The Standard (St. Catharines)

Hirji, local politician­s react to four-point border reopening plan

Niagara’s acting medical officer of health says it’s premature to more broadly open land crossings

- RAY SPITERI

Despite U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushing for a border reopening plan with Canada, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health says it’s premature to more broadly open crossings.

“I don’t think it would be to either side’s benefit to do that,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji. “COVID cases are pretty high on the Canadian side here right now with the third wave. It is actually not very good on the U.S. side either.”

Schumer, a Democrat senator from New York, held a news conference at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Wednesday where he laid out his four-point plan for reopening the land border.

“I stand here today because we can’t wait any longer. We’ve got to get this border opened up,” he said. “It’s well past time for the American and Canadian government­s to give the countless stakeholde­rs along the northern border the clarity they deserve, and to get moving on opening up this border.”

He said his plan would “quickly, but safely” open the border in a “much larger way” than it has been for more than a year.

“First, we have to find a way to come together and establish a binational agreement on criteria for opening up the border,” said Schumer. “Second, we must immediatel­y redefine what it means to be an essential traveller.”

He urged the federal government­s to declare “any vaccinated individual with familial, business, property, educationa­l, medical or other interests be allowed to cross the border.

“Third, we’re asking for the recreation­al and commercial boaters to be able to cross freely from Canadian into American waters, back and forth, without penalty.”

Schumer also called on the U.S. Homeland Security secretary to ensure all necessary support is available to Customs and Border Protection personnel along the northern border.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 45 per cent of the American population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, while about 33 per cent have been fully vaccinated.

Health Canada data shows 33.6 per cent of the Canadian population has received at least one dose, with 2.6 per cent fully vaccinated.

Hirji said in his opinion, three conditions need to be in place to reopen Niagara’s border crossings.

The case count needs to be relatively low on both sides, a high percentage of people on both sides need to be vaccinated, and there aren’t dangerous variants circulatin­g on either side of the border that could cross over and establish themselves.

“I sort of see that the end of summer might be a reasonable point where we have everything in place to go there,” said Hirji.

St. Catharines Liberal MP Chris Bittle said he agrees with Hirji that it’s premature to consider more broadly opening the border.

“Our plan with respect to any port of entry, be it airports or the land border, is based on guidance from public health experts,” he said. “I would take Dr. Hirji’s advice over that of Sen. Schumer, in terms of where we are and where we need to be focused on.

“We’re doing a lot better, but we’re still in the middle of a lockdown, and we don’t know where we’re going to be.”

Bittle said he understand­s how “frustratin­g” the monthly border-closure extensions have been, but COVID-19 is a novel virus and even more than a year into the pandemic, “we don’t have all the answers.”

“It’s best to be overly cautious. We are going to get closer with the vaccinatio­n rates in Canada.”

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said he would like to see the federal government publicly present a plan for what reopening the border will look like.

“Where’s the criteria and the metrics on when the medical experts will feel comfortabl­e that it’s a safe time to reopen? Is that when we hit 50 per cent, is it when we hit 70 per cent (of people vaccinated)?” he said.

“Tell us where the target is, so we can plan for it.

“It’s unfair to businesses that count on the border when they don’t even know where the target is and how we’re going to get there.”

 ?? BOB TYMCZYSZYN TORSTAR ?? Border workers check vehicles at the Peace Bridge Thursday. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says his four-point plan would “quickly, but safely” open the U.s.-canada land crossing in a “much larger way” than it has been for more than a year.
BOB TYMCZYSZYN TORSTAR Border workers check vehicles at the Peace Bridge Thursday. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says his four-point plan would “quickly, but safely” open the U.s.-canada land crossing in a “much larger way” than it has been for more than a year.
 ??  ?? Chuck Schumer
Chuck Schumer

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