When the US and Canada mutually agreed in March to shut down the border to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, no one predicted it would be closed this long. There is still no specified date for its reopening, although trade has continued between the countries.
East to west for thousands of miles, in communities on both sides of the national divide, the border closure is redefining not just economic relationships, but personal lives, in ways no one expected.
No longer. The border is shut tight for any trips that are deemed “non-essential” or discretionary and that includes all recreation and tourism.
The US-Canada border from the Canada side. When the US and Canada mutually agreed in March to shut the border to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, no one predicted it would be closed this long.
Bigger pain on the Canadian side of the border
Statistics Canada recently reported that cross border car trips are down about 95% across both sides of the border.
For decades in these border communities, people have crossed the border in both directions every day to attend a school or training program, go on a shopping trip to grab a bargain, indulge a craving for a meal at a favorite restaurant or a last-minute trip to the casino to play the slot machines.
In a way, the border closure has been a victim of its own success. Essential goods and services have continued to flow across the border efficiently and easily with supply chains largely unaffected. Canada and the US maintain one of largest trading relationships in the world, doing about $1.9 billion in trade every day.
While the rules apply equally in both countries, the economic pain has not been distributed evenly on the Cornwall-Massena divide.
“There is no question about the economic impact. We have small businesses that have not reopened, we have some that will never reopen because they rely heavily on Canadian traffic,” Mayor Currier said in a phone interview with CNN.
Mayor Clement says Cornwall is feeling the economic loss of American clientele but with a larger, more dynamic economy, the damage hasn’t been as acute.
And as infection rates climbed in the US, diverging from Canada’s flattened pandemic curve, just seeing cars with US plates alarmed many Canadians.
“It has been challenging to keep everybody calm because residents took note of those plates, yes,” Clement said.
Whether in Cornwall’s Walmart parking lot or in its downtown business district, many locals told CNN they preferred the border stay closed for months to come given the higher infection rate in the US.
A July poll by Ipsos showed more than eight in 10 Canadians want the border to remain closed until at least the end of the year.
Mohawk Council of Akwesasne: Straddling the border
“The challenge for us being right on the border is we see the surge in cases in the United States as a whole. Some states have more cases than the entire country of Canada. We have to be cautious about that,” Grand Chief Abram Benedict of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne said in a phone interview with CNN.
The Mohawk of Akwesasne straddles the US and Canadian borders and its 13,000 residents hold a unique position. They’ve maintained their right to travel between the two countries even during this pandemic.
When presenting their identification cards to prove Indian status, they can cross the border for essential travel in either the US or Canada to shop, bank, go to a doctor or check on family members.
It also means they are exempt from a two-week quarantine when entering Canada.
Benedict says that means those with New York state license plates are often seen in and around Cornwall. Most Canadians residents now understand they have a right to be there, but Benedict says his community has a greater responsibility to keep everyone safe.
An overnight curfew in Akwesasne is still in place with a ban on travel outside a 50-mile radius. Benedict adds that many in his community have been wearing masks long before it was mandatory in Cornwall.
In fact, new infections are low on both sides of the border, but the longer the border stays closed, the more profound the economic impact.
“I’ve got to make up for a 40% hole in my business,” said Todd Papineau, general manager of the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort, in a phone interview with CNN, saying he doesn’t expect Canadians to be back from months.
Papineau says most of his 750 staff have been off work for about five months now, although he is trying to bring back about half of them for a proposed reopening later this month relying on local US customers only.
“The worst-case scenario is this will still be with us this time next year, that’s what I believe; I hope I’m wrong,” Papineau said.
Nancy Page working at Philos Restaurant in Cornwall, which has relied on diners from the United States.
‘It’s harder for businesses’
At Philos Restaurant in Cornwall, US customers were a staple for the family-owned Greek restaurant and pizzeria. After five months, the restaurant just reopened to dine-in customers.
On a recent Friday afternoon, only one table was being served in a dining hall that can serve more than 100 customers. The extended border closure has meant that businesses that rely on US customers are coming to grips with a decline in business for months to come.
“It is harder for businesses. We have fewer customers, and it’s a big change for people working in those businesses because they don’t know what to expect in the future,” said Nancy Page, a manager who’s been working at the restaurant for most of its two decades.
Some border communities, especially in the US, are lobbying for a path forward to try to get the border open using what they call a careful, slow, thoughtful process, taking advice from public health experts.
“I certainly respect Canada’s view, but what’s happening in Florida is not happening in New York and New Yorkers are taking significant steps to reduce the likelihood and the chances of infection cases increasing,” Currier said.
Many in Canada’s business community agree with him, arguing Canada should double down on rapid testing and that a two-week quarantine for months to come is unsustainable and will disproportionately impact leisure and hospitality.
“Some sectors have been pummeled and their very existence is at stake,” says Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada adding, “I do think there needs to be a plan to work towards a reopening in a responsible way.”