Summer travel may be warming up, but most Americans who want to cross the northern border into Canada have to keep waiting. Prolonged border closures have not only delayed travel plans, but also destroyed the industry, which in 2019 brought the U.S. more than $ 20 billion, according to data from the American Travel Association.
The 16-month closure of the U.S.-Canada border has affected small businesses from coast to coast, but some in popular tourist areas are starting to benefit from the nation’s travel boom. Others are struggling without Canadian customers, who were once their main source of income.
“Niagara Falls, New York and the Niagara Region of Canada, I’ve always compared it to the neighborhood separated by this river,” said Robert Restaino, mayor of Niagara Falls. “And I think what you see is like cutting the neighborhood off of your community.”
Calls for the border to open have intensified in recent weeks as business leaders and politicians on both sides of the border call for the reopening of vaccinated passengers. As of July 5, people who have been vaccinated have been exempted from the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, and according to the official website of the Canadian government, talks on the full opening of the border are expected to resume on July 21.
But business owners and border-separated families say the indefinite closure is frustratingly vague, especially since the two countries agreed on June 21 – when the restrictions are due to expire – to extend the closure by at least another month.
There may be a major shift towards reopening over the next few weeks as restrictions ease, but business owners in small towns claim to be out of breath. For those in remote areas who depend on Canadian parties, the decision to close the border every month makes it almost impossible to recover from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
“They never gave us a long-term plan,” said Mason Peters, owner of Mike’s Parcel storage and takeover service in the small border town of Pembina, North Dakota. “Every month, [government officials] tell us it’s still 30 days. So how do you plan for six months if you don’t even know what things will look like in six months? “
Peters, whose warehouse acts as a U.S. mailbox for Canadians looking to save on tariffs and shipping prices, said he lost about 50 percent of his business overnight when the border closed. He said his company, although the vaccination rate had increased, supplied exclusively Canadian customers. For many of these clients, he said, daily border crossing for personal or business reasons was a way of life that was completely changed by closing the border.
But tourist centers such as Niagara Falls, which once struggled to attract locked businesses and has been hit by border closures, in nearby states looking to spend time outdoors are rising in the incomes of Americans starving from travel.
“We’ve seen a pretty good rise in guests from these areas. These are usually areas from which people drive,” Restaino said. “And in this case, a lot of people aren’t ready to fly yet, so there’s a lot more vehicle traffic coming from those areas.”
Shawn Weber, owner of the Wine on Third restaurant and bar in downtown Niagara Falls, said his business is thriving not only because of the increased number of trips, but also because Americans who visit the city can no longer cross the bridge to Canada. Weber said the range of tourists visiting his restaurant has completely changed, with more coming from neighboring countries instead of from abroad.
As with other restaurants across the country, the main challenge for his company is staffing, Weber said, due to a shortage of workers across the country, leading to shorter working hours, long waiting times and unexpected closures at many restaurants.
“The irony of closing the bridge is that very often when people travel to Niagara Falls, they go to the Canadian side because there’s more going on there,” Weber said. “So we benefited a little bit because people can’t go there.”
Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian-American Business Council, said another question for small businesses at the border is whether their services are considered “essential” and allowed to be crossed – a decision often left to the discretion of border officials. The tourism industry is not defined as “essential”.
“If you don’t transport food, pharmaceuticals or fans, is your business a necessity or not?” Greenwood said. “So there’s a huge gray area that has been combined with individual border guards [who] received discretion. “
Peters said “essential” services are a “very, very, very small part” of what crosses the border on a daily basis and restricts most small businesses to their side. Now that business owners are waiting for a possible reopening of “non-essential” services on July 21, the question is whether the two governments will agree on the passage of tourists.
Greenwood said: “If we do on July 21, when the current border closure expires, if Canada wants to rebuild the prison and the U.S. wants to open up completely, what are we going to do? I think that’s an option. And that would be sad.”