Amid questions, North Country, Vermont breath ‘huge sigh of relief’ over reopening border

CANADIAN BORDER (WFFF/WWTI) — Families and political and business leaders are praising plans by the Biden administration to begin allowing people from Canda and Mexico who are fully vaccinated against COVID to enter the U.S. This applies to vehicle, rail, and ferry travel at the Northern Border starting in November.

The Department of Homeland Security announced late Tuesday that both the Canadian and Mexican borders would reopen early next month. Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday called the move “a significant step forward on the path from pandemic to endemic management of COVID-19.”

In the North Country, they’re celebrating the news that vaccinated travelers from Canada will be able to cross into the U.S. starting in November. The decision provided some long-awaited relief for businesses, communities, and elected officials that had been pushing Pres. Joe Biden for the reopening. Some of the loudest calls for action on the border closure rang from the North Country. Leadership at the North Country Chamber of Commerce made it clear they were fed up.

Jordon Leblanc, an ambassador of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, said he and his wife live in Cadyville, 30 miles from the border. But for more than a year and a half, they could not see his siblings, parents, and grandparents in New Brunswick.

“It has been tremendously hard,” Leblanc said. “We’ve had to postpone travel plans, gatherings have been on hold, and I know the whole region has just felt tension of—something is lacking.”

The impact on Clinton County, in particular, made it difficult to ignore the lack of Canadian visitors. “They take advantage of a lot of our attractions, our marinas, our campgrounds,” said Kristy Kennedy, VP of Marketing and Business Development for the chamber. “We’ve missed two summers of that. With this announcement, the nice thing is, holiday season, we do get a really good lodging and retail spike typically. So we’re hoping to see that again this year.”

Sylvie Nelson of Saranac Lake said her Canadian citizenship allowed her entry into Canada during the pandemic, but she couldn’t go with her husband, who is American. “He had to drive my son to the border,” she said. “My little 13-year-old crossed by foot. I could see my husband on the other side, we would wave at each other and that’s as close as we got. It was eerie.”

Mary Curry of Chazy Lake said it was “devastating” not to see their young grandson in Montreal, a trip they took every weekend until the border shut down in March 2020. “We missed a lot of special things,” she said. “We missed a lot of the milestones of our only grandchild and just getting to connect with him and bond with him was really hard.”

Leblanc visited his family in October for the first time since March 2020. Now he’s thrilled they will soon be able to make the trip south. “For hundreds if not thousands of people along the border this is a huge sigh of relief, and I am one of those people,” said Leblanc.

Vermont ski resorts are also celebrating. About 50% of Jay Peak’s annual winter visitors hail from Canada. The pandemic-related travel restrictions made for a dismal 2020 on the slopes, but the return of nonessential travel is now poised to bring back essential customers. “Not having that last year was a real gut punch to our revenue,” said Jay Peak spokesperson, J.J. Toland said. “It’s shifted the lens of how we’re looking at this season now pretty significantly.”

For months, Mexico, Canada, and lawmakers that represent areas along the land borders have pressed for the restrictions to be eased. This includes representatives in the North Country and Western New York, including Reps. Brian Higgins and Elise Stefanik, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and State Sen. Dan Stec.

Stec had been urging the Biden Administration to reopen the border by Canada’s Thanksgiving Day on October 11, which typically draws many visitors. “Better late than never, but the Canadians managed to figure this out months ago and none of us have heard any negative experiences the Canadians had letting vaccinated Americans into Canada,” he said, adding that that delay remains a concern.

“Why now?” he said. “The question a few months ago was ‘what metric do we need to hit for us to reopen the border?’ Now we’re getting word that the border is going to reopen, and I welcome that news, but what changed?”

Toland also had some lingering concerns when it comes to testing protocol for Canadians upon their return north of the border. “There’s no indications right now that the U.S. is going to require testing, but as of now, the Canadians require testing to leave,” Toland said. “Are they going to require testing to come back? So, what that process looks like is going to inform what we expect from the Canadian traveler, but we are hopeful it’s going to look a lot better than last season.”

Following the announcement on Wednesday that borders will open next month, both Senator Schumer and Rep. Stefanik released statements in approval.

“Kudos to president Biden for doing the right thing and increasing cross-border travel between Canada and the U.S.,” Schumer said in a press release. “The high vaccination rates on each side of the border have opened the door of safe cross border travel and will now safely increase the rebirth of the economic energy of Upstate NY Since the beginning of the pandemic, members of our shared cross-border community have felt the pain and economic hardship of the land border closures. That pain is about to end. Very soon, the link between New York and our northern neighbors will finally be re-established, reuniting families, bolstering businesses, and ending a frustrating cycle of waiting for everyone involved.”

“After months of bipartisan advocacy, I am proud to announce the northern border will finally be reopened,” Stefanik said. “For too long, residents of the North Country have been denied access to family, travel, and commerce. Now, families can be reunited and our small businesses will be restored. I have been fighting for the North Country since the beginning and will not stop until this result is delivered for our communities. This is a long-overdue step, however, it is an important first step to rebuild the confidence in our cross-border relationship and friendship with our Canadian partners.”

Reopening the Northern Border will take effect sometime in early November, officials have confirmed. Before the announcement on Wednesday, all U.S. land borders had been closed to non-essential travel since March 21, 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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