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Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario expected to unveil plan to further reopen economy; Border towns prepare for reopening of Canada-U.S. border

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Thursday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

6:45 a.m.: China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday warned against what it called possible “political manipulation” of a renewed probe by the World Health Organization into the origins of the coronavirus, while saying it would support the international body’s efforts.

The WHO on Wednesday released a proposed list of 25 experts to advise it on next steps in the search for the virus’ origins after its earlier efforts were attacked for going too easy on China, where the first human cases were detected in late 2019.

Beijing was accused of withholding raw data on early cases during a visit by a WHO team in February and has since resisted calls for further investigation, saying the U.S. and others were politicizing the matter.

Foreign Ministry spoksperson Zhao Lijian said China would “continue to support and participate in global scientific tracing and firmly oppose any forms of political manipulation.”

“We hope that all parties concerned, including the WHO secretariat and the advisory group, will effectively uphold an objective and responsible scientific attitude,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

The findings of the original WHO-led team were inconclusive, and the experts released a report concluding it was “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab, prompting criticism from outside scientists that the theory had not been properly vetted. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later acknowledged it had been “premature” to dismiss the lab theory.

6:20 a.m.: On weekends when the Bills are playing a home game at Highmark Stadium, Mike Shatzel usually starts hearing plenty of Canadian accents at the bars and restaurants he runs in the Buffalo area.

But, for the last two seasons, the trickle of people heading into Cole’s, Allen Burger Venture and Thin Man Brewing have pretty much all been Western New York locals.

News that the Biden administration is set to open the U.S. land border after almost 18 months of COVID-related closure was more than welcome.

“We’ve missed you guys. It’ll be nice to have you back,” said Shatzel. “It’s great for everybody. Restaurants, hotels, malls, the Sabres and Bills. This is fantastic news.”

Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada would open in November for fully vaccinated visitors sparked relief and near-giddiness for tourism and hospitality businesses in Buffalo, Detroit and other U.S. border cities that have long counted on Canadian visitors to bolster their bottom lines.

Read the full story by the Star’s Josh Rubin.

6:10 a.m.: Patsy Nunes was glad to get the AstraZeneca vaccine when she called around looking for appointments last April, and she’s glad to have it now.

She just wishes the U.S. officials were as happy about her two-dose combo as she is.

With one dose of AstraZeneca, and one dose of Pfizer, she and her husband are unsure about whether they’ll be able to visit her parents in North Carolina, even after land-border restrictions loosen next month.

With the news that the U.S. land border reopening plan doesn’t yet state that people who’ve gotten two different doses of COVID-19 vaccine can cross into the U.S., Nunes is wondering whether mixed-dose recipients like her will ever be recognized as seamlessly as those who had two of the same vaccine doses.

She also wonders whether a third dose could eventually be part of the solution.

Read the full story from the Star’s Alex McKeen.

6:05 a.m.: The Indonesian resort island of Bali reopened for international travelers to visit its shops and white-sand beaches for the first time in more than a year Thursday — if they’re vaccinated, test negative, hail from certain countries, quarantine and heed restrictions in public.

However, foreign visitors may be slow to arrive. No international flights to Bali were scheduled on the first day of the reopening and a tourism official forecast travel would pick up in November.

Bali’s airport will welcome new foreign arrivals from 19 countries that meet World Health Organization’s criteria such as having their COVID-19 cases under control, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the government minister who leads the COVID-19 response in Java and Bali, said in a statement late Wednesday.

He said all international flight passengers must have proof they’ve been vaccinated two times, test negative for the coronavirus upon arrival in Bali and undergo a 5-day quarantine at designated hotels at their own expense. They’ll also have to follow stringent rules at hotels, in restaurants and on beaches.

“We have to do this with caution because we need to stay alert,” Pandjaitan said.

5:45 a.m.: Premier Doug Ford will lift COVID-19 capacity limits in restaurants, bars, and gyms when he unveils additional benchmarks for further reopening Ontario’s economy.

Ford, who is expected to meet with reporters Friday, hopes to deliver encouraging news for restaurateurs and others — such as publicans and fitness centre owners — who are concerned about restrictions on their businesses.

The premier’s news conference will come days before his Progressive Conservative government unveils detailed steps for reopening next week.

It’s been about three months since Ontario entered the current “step three” of reopening.

“We’re calling it ‘pandemic plan 2.0’ — but it’s not just about reopening,” a senior government official told the Star on Wednesday, confirming a CBC report that broke the news.

Read the full story from the Star’s Robert Benzie and Rob Ferguson.

5:05 a.m.: A standardized vaccine passport that would pave Canadians’ way for easier domestic and international travel could be coming in a matter of weeks, with recent delays less about buy-in from provinces and more about the technology behind the system.

Ottawa first began working on a national vaccine passport this spring. Days before the federal election was called in August, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino — who leads the federal department tasked with implementing a proof of vaccination system for international travel — said the government’s hope was to launch a vaccination credential program “as early as early fall.”

While it missed that target, the goal now is to have a vaccine passport available “within weeks,” a senior government source told the Star. If that deadline isn’t met, “it won’t be longer than a week or two after that,” the source said.

That timeline would align with the federal government’s requirement for all travellers on planes, interprovincial trains and some maritime vessels to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Oct. 30.

Read the full story from the Star’s Raisa Patel and Tonda MacCharles.

4:45 a.m.: Beleaguered business owners and families separated by COVID-19 are celebrating after the Biden administration says it will reopen U.S. land borders to non-essential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze.

Travel across land borders from Canada and Mexico has been largely restricted to workers whose jobs are deemed essential. New rules will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason starting in early November.

The ban has had enormous economic, social and cultural impact, preventing cross-border shopping and family gatherings when relatives live on different sides of the border.

In Del Rio, Texas, Mexican visitors account for about 65 per cent of retail sales, said Blanca Larson, executive director of the chamber of commerce and visitors bureau in the city of 35,000 people.

Along the border, we’re like more of one community than two different communities,” she said.

Community events have also stalled even as cities away from U.S. borders have inched toward normalcy.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., the Soo Eagles Junior A hockey team hasn’t had a home game against a Canadian opponent in 20 months. The players have been travelling to Canada since border restrictions were lifted there two months ago. Now the U.S. team can play host.

“I almost fell over when I read it,” said Ron Lavin, co-owner of the Eagles. “It’s been a long frustrating journey for people on a lot of fronts far more serious than hockey, but we’re just really pleased. It’s great for the city.”

4 a.m.: COVID-19 testing requirements for Canadians driving home from the United States could only prolong the hardships for the tiny coastal town of Point Roberts, Wash., community leaders say.

Point Roberts is disconnected from the rest of the state by water, requiring residents to drive through Metro Vancouver to get to Washington state’s mainland.

Brian Calder, president of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce, said that before COVID-19, the community would see about 1.5 million visitors each year, but half of them often spent an hour or less in the town getting cheaper gas, buying groceries or checking on their cabins or boats.

When the U.S. border reopens to vaccinated Canadians, there will be no testing requirement to go south, but Canada requires a negative COVID-19 test to return and Calder said that’s a problem for Point Roberts.

Point Roberts only offers testing on Wednesdays and Sundays, which he said would limit Canadian visitors.

He said he’s hoping the Canadian government lifts the testing regulation for the town.

“We’re a completely unique place in North America and we deserve to be treated uniquely,” he said, citing a 87 per cent vaccination rate in the community. “We’ve been very proactive as a community. The last thing we want is to be conduits of COVID, but we’re not being listened to.”



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