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TORONTO, Ontario — As of Nov. 30, fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents returning home after short trips to the United States and abroad will no longer have to provide proof of a negative molecular test, such as a PCR test.
The federal government announced that it is lifting the molecular test requirement for travelers who have received a complete COVID-19 vaccine series when returning to Canada after less than 72 hours.
However, the molecular test requirement will still be required for trips abroad lasting more than 72 hours.
"The upcoming changes to Canada's border testing and entry requirements reflect the next stage in our government's approach as we align with the improving vaccination rates both here in Canada and around the world," Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said during the briefing.
Despite easing travel restrictions, Duclos cautioned that Canadians cannot "let their guard down" and said everyone "must work hard to protect the gains we have made" against COVID-19.
In addition to the change in reentry testing, the federal government announced that travellers who have received the Sinopharm, Sinovac and Covaxin COVID-19 vaccines will be considered fully vaccinated for travel purposes by the end of the month, matching the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use by the World Health Organization.
Duclos noted that officials are monitoring the situation at the border "closely" and will evaluate these measures and recommend "necessary adjustments as required."
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said during the briefing Friday that travellers are still required to enter their travel information in the ArriveCAN app and will be responsible for "maintaining proof" of their 72-hour window to show airlines, rail companies and government officials "as required."
"Remember that providing false information to a government of Canada official upon entry to Canada is a serious offense and may result in severe penalties or even criminal charges," he said.
The federal government lifted the global advisory asking Canadians to avoid nonessential travel outside the country in October, but is continuing to advise against travel on cruise ships.
The U.S. government reopened its land border to nonessential Canadian travellers on Nov. 8., while air travel to the U.S. has been allowed with certain conditions.
Previous border measures required that all travellers entering Canada, regardless of vaccination status, present proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of crossing the land border or flight departure.
For trips under 72 hours, travellers have been permitted to take a COVID-19 test in Canada before departure under the current rules, then show the Canadians results upon their return.
These rules remain in place until Nov. 30.
Molecular tests can cost anywhere between $150 to $300. Antigen tests, which generally only cost $40 to $60, are not accepted for entry in Canada.
Pressure has been mounting on the federal government from politicians and tourism companies on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to lift the PCR test entry requirement for short trips, arguing the expensive tests can deter travel between the two countries.
Critics have also called for the test requirement to be scrapped completely for fully vaccinated tourists, but Canada is expected to take a more gradual approach to easing some of the pandemic-related measures at the border.
Canada opened its borders in October to nonessential international travellers who have received both doses of a Health Canada-approved COVID-19 vaccine, and fully vaccinated Americans have been allowed to cross the border into Canada since August, with certain entry conditions.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the federal government is taking a "phased approach" when it comes to permitting fully vaccinated tourists into the country without a negative molecular test.
Tam said Friday that permitting Canadian travellers first to reenter without the PCR test on short trips will help "mitigate risk" of increased COVID-19 cases coming from abroad. She added that the discrepancy between Canadian and U.S. travellers is more a reflection of "operational considerations" at this time.
Tam said public health authorities can keep better track of Canadian citizens and permanent residents upon their return to Canada than they can U.S. visitors.
However, Americans may soon be next.
New York Congressman Brian Higgins told CTV's Power Play Thursday that Canada plans to phase out PCR test travel requirements for fully vaccinated travellers in three phases: "Canadians first, Americans, followed by everyone else."
Duclos said the federal government will be "reevaluating the entry requirements for American citizens coming to Canada" and will provide an update "at a later date."
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce quickly criticized the decision, calling Ottawa's change in testing requirements a "one-way door on the border."
"Just as the holiday shopping season —the most important period for the retail sector— begins, Ottawa is making it easier for Canadians to cross-border shop while maintaining punitive restrictions that discourage fully vaccinated Americans from vacationing or shopping in Canada," chamber president and CEO Perrin Beatty said in a statement Friday.
"The 72-hour cutoff is also arbitrary. It is hard to understand how travellers are low-risk for 72 hours, but become a danger at hour 73."
The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada's largest air carriers including Air Canada and WestJet, also criticized the changes, saying they don't go far enough.
President and CEO Mike McNaney said in a statement Friday that the predeparture PCR testing should be lifted for all passengers that are fully vaccinated and says the federal government is taking a "piecemeal approach" by only focusing on short trips and Canadian travellers.
"The predeparture test is simply no longer justified for fully vaccinated travellers," McNaney said. "It is not the duration of the trip or the nationality of the passenger that is relevant, but rather the vaccination status of the traveller that is key."
The federal government said Friday it will require certain groups of travellers, who are currently exempt from entry requirements, to be fully vaccinated with a Health Canada approved COVID-19 vaccine in order to enter the country.
"Given the greater availability of these vaccines in many parts of the world, we will also be further reducing the number of entry exemptions available for adults who are not fully vaccinated," Duclos said.
These changes apply to all essential service providers, including truck drivers, work permit holders, including temporary foreign workers, as well as other groups, such as international students and athletes.
After Jan. 15, 2022, the federal government says unvaccinated or partially vaccinated foreign nationals will only be allowed to enter Canada under "limited exceptions," which apply to certain groups such as agricultural and food processing workers, marine crew members, new permanent residents, resettling refugees and those entering the country on "compassionate grounds."
However, those who are exempt will still be required to follow entry requirements, including molecular testing and mandatory quarantine.
Unvaccinated foreign nationals who are not exempt will be "prohibited entry into Canada."
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in a statement Friday announcing the changes that requiring foreign nationals to be fully vaccinated will add "another important layer of protection at the border."
"Many foreign nationals and international students arriving in Canada are already fully vaccinated, and the measures announced today will help ensure that Canadians remain protected against COVID-19 as the economy reopens and international travel returns," Fraser said.