“It’s just heartbreaking to watch it all dissolve — 42 years of my legacy disappear in one season.”
As restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus drag into a fourth month, Brown and other business operators are pushing officials to consider ways to let at least some tourists in. But they’re running into resistance from the broader population, which appears to have little appetite for lifting the restrictions.
Amid a general sense here that Canada has handled the coronavirus better than the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June there was “broad consensus” among provincial leaders to keep current measures along the 5,500-mile frontier in place.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he wants the border to stay closed to nonessential travelers beyond the current July 21 end date. British Columbia’s health minister last week rattled off the record numbers of new cases in hard-hit U.S. states.
A national survey by Destination Canada, a crown corporation that markets Canada as a tourist destination, found that just 24 percent of people in Quebec somewhat or strongly agreed with welcoming U.S. visitors — and they were the most enthusiastic province. In British Columbia, the figure was 6 percent.
“Canadians look at what’s happening with the spread of covid in the United States and their comparatively better performance at getting it under control,” said Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And they have no interest at all in Americans coming to Canada.”
The concern is not hypothetical.
British Columbia’s health ministry last month showed that the second-largest grouping of covid-19 strains in the province originated in Washington state. Bonnie Henry, the province’s top doctor, said cross-border travel was responsible for “seeding outbreaks in our communities.”
Canada, which confirmed its first coronavirus case a week after the United States, has reported 288.1 cases and 23.5 deaths per 100,000 people. The United States has reported 849.4 cases and 38.8 deaths per 100,000.
Ottawa and Washington agreed to impose the border restrictions in March, and they have extended by one-month increments three times. The measures have had limited effects on trade and the movement of essential workers. But they’ve brought passenger crossings to a near standstill, ground tourism to a halt and upended life in border communities, where residents cross frequently for cheap beer, gas and to socialize with loved ones.
Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Post the restrictions were imposed after an “incredibly orderly and collaborative” process, and have been a “phenomenal success.” She recognizes “frustrations,” but said Canada’s position on the border will be “guided by science and the advice of experts.”
“Our number one responsibility is keeping Canadians safe and preventing the spread of covid-19,” she said. “Preventing transmission from outside of Canada into Canada is really an essential part of preventing that second wave, if there is one.”
But business groups, lawmakers and some analysts are calling for a new approach.
“We may not be able to get the border back to normal tomorrow,” said Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor. “But we have to be able to operate the border at some higher level than it’s operating now.”
The co-chairs of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus wrote to the leaders of the Department of Homeland Security and Public Safety Canada last month criticizing “one-size-fits-all” restrictions and calling for “nuanced and particularized guidance” on the frontier.
“We have recognized that the experience of the pandemic is not monolithic and regionally there are very different challenges that communities face in an effort to return to normal economic activity,” Reps. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) wrote.
Higgins wants the definition of essential traveler to include more family members, business travelers and those who own property on the other side of the border. (Canada recently allowed some immediate family members of Canadians to enter, but they must quarantine for the first 14 days of their stay.)
Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, called for a “more creative and innovative” strategy for the border. She said a regional approach to reopening it would be “huge and really important,” but might not be “logistically possible.”
In an open letter to Trudeau in May, the Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable called for lifting restrictions between provinces, easing international travel bans and assessing the “efficacy” of curbs on travel at the U.S.-Canada border.
Canada’s tourism sector generates $74 billion annually and is responsible for 1.8 million jobs, according to government figures. Two-thirds of international tourist arrivals to Canada in 2019 came from the United States.
The losses go both ways. Corey Fram, director of tourism for the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council in New York and Ontario, said the absence of Canadian visitors on the U.S. side of the Saint Lawrence River is noticeable. During the summer, Canadians transform American towns, docking their boats at marinas, visiting their properties and injecting cash into the economy.
One attraction bracing for a hit is Boldt Castle, an imposing structure built in the early 1900s on Heart Island, an American island. Timothy Sturick, executive director of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which oversees the castle, said 40 percent of visitors arrive each year from Canada via private boats or boat tours.
The border measures will have a “significant” impact, he said.
Fram doesn’t think the restrictions are “ill-advised,” but he wishes officials would communicate better about if, when and how they’ll be lifted, amended or kept in place.
For seven years, Dave Cortright has led groups on fishing tours around the Thousand Islands for pike, bass and walleye.
Cortright, the owner of Reel Commander Fishing Charter in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., said 80 percent of his customers want to fish in Canadian waters but can’t. That has led 10 percent to cancel trips. He wants the border agreement changed to allow American boaters to enter Canadian waters — and vice versa — to fish.
“As long as you’re not touching the land or coming in contact with anybody . . . what are we affecting?” he said. “It makes no sense to me.”
Brown, of Totem Resorts, wants officials to consider admitting travelers who have recently tested negative for the coronavirus.
Some business operators are fine with the restrictions.
Robin Warren, a manager at the Woodview Inn in the town of Gananoque, Ontario, said the hotel would normally be fully occupied with American and European tourists. But on a recent day, the hotel was empty with just one guest scheduled to check in.
She’s not itching for the border to reopen.
“It’s keeping us safe,” Warren said.
Analysts say prolonged curbs on travel at the border could be habit-forming. They point to controls put in place following Sept. 11, 2001, after which passenger traffic at the land border never fully recovered.
“In the short run, it’s far more disruptive than 9/11 was,” said Alden, of the Council of Foreign Relations. “I think even in the medium and longer run, this is probably going to deepen the trend towards reduced cross-border traffic. I think it’s unlikely that people will just snap back to their previous patterns.”
Hillman, the Canadian ambassador, disagreed. She spent summers on her grandparents’ farm in Manitoba, some six miles from the border with North Dakota.
“I have every confidence that the ties that have been created between our communities and our people over the lifetime of our two countries are very, very strong,” she said. “This will pass . . . including with respect to us visiting and enjoying time in each other’s countries.”
George Ruddy, third-generation owner of Cavallario’s Steak House in Alexandria Bay, called the loss of Canadians “a blow” — and not just economically. They’re not only customers, he said, but friends whose company he misses.
“Hopefully, we get through this and never see anything like this again in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s a struggle for sure.”