In this Aug. 9, 2021, file photo, cars line up to enter Canada from the Houlton-Woodstock port of entry in Houlton. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

WASHINGTON — The U.S. will reopen its land borders to nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the country moves to require all international visitors to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Vehicle, rail and ferry travel between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico has been largely restricted to essential travel, such as trade, since the earliest days of the pandemic. The new rules, announced Wednesday, will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason for travel starting in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set to kick in for air travel into the country. By mid-January, even essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., like truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner” and lauded the economic benefits of it.

Both Mexico and Canada have pressed the U.S. for months to ease restrictions on travel that have separated families and curtailed leisure trips since the onset of the pandemic. The latest move follows last month’s announcement that the U.S. will end country-based travel bans for air travel and instead require vaccination for foreign nationals seeking to enter by plane.

Senior administration officials had previewed the new land border policy late Tuesday. Both policies will take effect in early November, the officials said.

It is currently unknown what the exact date of reopening will be, but more details are expected in coming days. The border closure is normally renewed on the 21st of each month, ever since the border first closed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020. 

Calls to reopen the border to Canadians in the following weeks had come from high-ranking politicians on both sides of the political aisle, such as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden. 

The continued closure of the border has had an impact on Maine border towns, with Canadians making up a significant portion of tourists during Maine’s summer season. 

Collins, a Republican, called the decision a “welcome development” for businesses in border communities that have been hard hit since the start of the pandemic and give a boost to the state’s tourism industry.

Aside from the economic boost from the border reopening, Collins said that it marks the end of the separation for families with relatives on both sides of the U.S.-Canada line.

“Today’s long-overdue announcement is fantastic news for Mainers who have deeply missed having their Canadian relatives at holiday celebrations, family functions, and other milestone events,” Collins said Wednesday morning.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the move brings consistency to U.S. travel policy as vaccinated Europeans have been allowed to fly here for weeks while Canadians have been unable to drive across the border.

“Bottom line: this action by the White House will reconnect friends and families, and help stabilize local economies that rely on cross-border neighbors for business — a welcome action, especially as the holiday season approaches,” King said Wednesday.

Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, said the reopening will be a “critical step forward” for the state’s recovery from the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills called the decision “long overdue,” echoing her prior criticism from July that the prolonged closure has hurt Maine communities up and down the border.

“For too long, the closed border with our Canadian neighbors has made it difficult, if not impossible, for cross-border families to see one another, and it has strained our local small businesses and our state’s tourism industry,” Mills said.

Canada began welcoming fully vaccinated Americans in August, but Canadians still were not allowed to enter into the U.S. via ports of entry such as across Maine’s Houlton border. U.S. travelers had to enter their vaccination information into an app, have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the crossing into Canada and be subject to an at-border test as well.

The new rules only apply to legal entry to the U.S. Officials cautioned that those seeking to enter illegally will still be subject to expulsion under so-called Title 42 authority, first invoked by former President Donald Trump, that has drawn criticism from immigration advocates for swiftly removing migrants before they can seek asylum. One of the officials said the U.S. was continuing the policy because cramped conditions in border patrol facilities pose a COVID-19 threat.

Travelers entering the U.S. by vehicle, rail and ferry will be asked about their vaccination status as part of the standard U.S. Customs and Border Protection admissions process. At officers’ discretion, travelers will have their proof of vaccination verified in a secondary screening process.

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, 

provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted. 

Officials said the CDC was still working to formalize procedures for admitting those who received doses of two different vaccines, as was fairly common in Canada.

The delay in the vaccination requirement for essential cross-border travel is meant to provide truck drivers and others with additional time to get a shot and minimize potential economic disruption from the vaccination mandate, officials said.

All told, the new procedures move toward a policy based on the risk profiles of individuals, rather than less targeted country-based bans.

The vaccination requirement for foreign nationals comes as the White House has moved to impose sweeping vaccination-or-testing requirements affecting as many as 100 million people in the U.S. in an effort to encourage holdouts to get shots. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Labor completed the initial draft of an emergency regulation that will require employers of 100 workers or more to demand their employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly. The Office of Management and Budget is now reviewing the order before its implementation.

Mexico has not put in place any COVID-19 entry procedures for travelers. Canada allows entry of fully-vaccinated individuals with proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as well as proof of a negative test conducted within 72 hours of entry to the country.

Story by Zeke Miller. BDN writers Alex MacDougall and Christopher Burns contributed to this report.