US President Donald Trump (left) and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump (left) and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Washington — President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced the closure of the US-Canada border to non-essential travellers as the coronavirus epidemic intensified in both countries.

The shutdown of the 8,891km international boundary —  the longest in the world between two countries — adds to Trump's barring of visitors from most of Europe, China and other parts of the world, as the number of confirmed virus cases in the US surged past 6,500, with 115 deaths.

“We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected,” Trump said.

The president later told a news conference that the border would be reopened in about 30 day's time. “Hopefully at the end of 30 days we'll be in great shape,” he said.

In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after speaking with Trump by telephone: “Travellers will no longer be permitted to cross the border for recreation and tourism.

“In both our countries, we're encouraging people to stay home,” he told a news conference. “I want to be clear, though, that essential travel will continue. Supply chains including trucking will also not be affected by this new measure.”

The US is Canada leading  trading partner, with about 200,000 people and about $2bn worth of goods crossing the border each day.

At the main Detroit-Windsor crossing on Wednesday, there was a significant drop in passenger vehicles, while heavy truck traffic continued in both directions.

“Our governments recognise that it is critical that we preserve supply chains between both countries,” Trudeau said. “These supply chains ensure that food fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border.”

On Monday, Trudeau announced that Canada was closing its borders to foreign travellers with the exception of Americans — a position that drew criticism in Canada.

As of Wednesday, Canada had more than 600 confirmed coronavirus cases and nine deaths.

Earlier on Wednesday Trudeau said his government would provide C$27bn  ($18.6bn) in support directly to families and businesses struggling because of the coronavirus outbreak.

But  the aid package did little to assuage investors. Canada's main stock market fell 6% and losses were the biggest in nearly 10 years.

The government will also provide C$55bn in additional aid to businesses and households through tax deferrals. The combined measures will put more than 3 percentage points of the country's annual output into circulation, officials said.

“No Canadian should have to worry about paying their rent or buying groceries during this difficult time,” Trudeau said outside his home, where he has been under quarantine since last week when his wife tested positive for Covid-19.

Ottawa “will do whatever it takes” to support the economy, finance minister Bill Morneau told reporters later, calling the measures a first phase of economic stimulus meant to offset the “profound impact” of the epidemic.

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz, who spoke alongside Morneau at the news conference, left the door open to further interest rate cuts and to quantitative easing, an emergency stimulus measure that could include the purchase of government bonds. Last Friday, the Bank of Canada slashed its key interest rate by 50 basis points for the second time in nine days.

In recent days, authorities have shuttered schools, closed bars and restaurants, and are encouraging people to stay at home.

“We still think the government needs to do more to secure a strong recovery further down the line,” Stephen Brown, a senior economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.

AFP, Reuters

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