I Tried (and Failed) to Pull Off a Romantic Mexican Vacation During COVID-19

I recently travelled from Toronto to L.A. to Baja, taking advantage of some confusing travel bans. It eventually caught up to me.
September 18, 2020, 4:15pm
​Olivia Bednar at a market in Baja
Olivia Bednar at a market in Baja. Photo courtesy of Bednar

In the middle of July, I was pacing around a holding cell at the U.S.-Mexico border, wondering how the hell I was ever getting back to Canada.

I ended up in this situation for the same reason most people end up in stupid situations: love. FaceTime had gotten stale and after four months of it with my American boyfriend, I flew from Toronto to his Los Angeles home in the midst of the pandemic.

We had heard from a friend that the COVID-19 travel ban wasn’t being enforced at the Mexican border. Desperate for some time away together, we made the impulsive decision to drive down to La Misión, a small village in the state of Baja California, Mexico.

We breezed through the Mexican border without anyone checking our passports or our temperatures. Despite these non-existent border measures, we and everyone we encountered at the restaurants and beaches in Mexico adhered to social distancing and mask-wearing.

After a few days inside our own blissful bubble, we drove back toward the U.S. border. We knew via the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that there was a non-essential travel ban at the U.S.-Mexico land border, but that it didn't apply to the air borders.

Since I was driving with my U.S. boyfriend who is legally allowed entry back into the U.S., and because we had already made it into Mexico no problem, we figured we would be fine.

“I’ve decided not to let you drive into the States today, ma’am,” said the U.S. border officer assertively once we reached San Ysidro, the busiest land border crossing in the world.

I started to panic and hyperventilate, but the border officer comforted me by saying we could just fly back.

Olivia Bednar at the airport in Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Bednar

Olivia Bednar at the airport in Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Bednar

We waited in a holding cell while our car was being inspected, and then back around to Tijuana we went, straight to the local airport. As I nervously shimmied through the large crowds, my stress levels rose again. I learned that no airline offered direct flights from Tijuana to any U.S. destination, so it became clear that my only option would be to fly further south to Mexico City for a five-hour layover and then connect there for a return flight to L.A.

Eighteen stressful hours, three busy airports, and two red-eye flights later, I was finally back in California—when it could have taken just two hours driving across safely isolated in my boyfriend’s Prius.

We had made a risky, admittedly stupid, decision and I faced the consequences for breaking the rules. But in my scenario, the enforcement of the rule was not preventing the risk of spreading COVID-19 into the U.S.—it was actually increasing it.

This whole experience showed me how each country is enforcing the travel ban in very different ways.

The U.S. travel ban with Canada and Mexico was implemented in March at the start of the pandemic,, and was just extended a sixth time, until at least October 21.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the ban states that essential travel includes travel for essential work involving “food, fuel, healthcare, and life-saving medicine.” Citizens and permanent residents entering their own country are also considered essential.

“Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature.”

What is lesser known, though, is that the non-essential policy has never applied to air travel into the U.S. from Mexico or Canada.

When I called the CBP general information line for this story and asked why this ban does not apply to air travel, one officer told me they could not say, just that it was a regulation put into place by U.S. President Donald Trump. On a different call another told me, “When travelling by air, (border officials) know how to regulate the traffic better.”

Unlike Canada, the U.S. does not have a mandatory 14-day quarantine for incoming travellers so you may come and go as you please. Essentially, you can’t drive into the U.S. but you can fly and once you’re in, you can do whatever you want.

Mexico doesn’t have a mandatory quarantine for incoming travellers, either. Like the U.S., there aren’t any restrictions on flying but there is a ban at the land borders. But unlike the U.S., the land restrictions aren’t really being imposed in Mexico.

Employees at Dmytri’s La Fonda hotel in Baja say business is normal and they are welcoming the same steady stream of U.S. tourists they receive every summer.

“Americans don’t have problems to come here,” an employee named Vasy told me.

The land ban is simply not being enforced, despite pleas from Mexican governors and citizens. Americans make up 90 percent of daily border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico land borders, according to U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, who has urged Americans to stop crossing for activities like shopping and eating out.

In Canada, the land and air borders are closed to non-essential travel. Everyone entering the country, including Americans, must quarantine for two weeks regardless of if they have symptoms or not—the penalty for failing to do so is fines up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.

I flew back to Canada in late July, about a week after my return to L.A. from Mexico. I was aware that I would have to quarantine upon my return and to avoid putting my family at risk, my parents booked a hotel room for me to self-isolate in. I was on a quarantine-specific floor that I was not permitted to leave for the whole two weeks. I even had food that my parents left for me delivered to my door by hotel employees.

As of Friday morning, 6.7 million coronavirus cases have been recorded in the U.S., 684,000 in Mexico, and 143,000 in Canada.

In the U.S., that’s about 60 deaths per 100,000  people, 57 deaths per capita in Mexico, and about 25 deaths per capita in Canada.

Some experts have said that a second wave of COVID-19 has already started in Canada. And in the U.S., many are saying cases are still way too high. The Canada-U.S. border closure will likely be extended again until at least November, senior government sources told CTV News.

No one really knows what the future of COVID-19 holds. I just know I’m happy to be home.

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