Canadian border unlikely to reopen anytime soon

Those looking to visit their northern neighbors in Canada may have to keep waiting.

The U.S.-Canadian border closure, in place since March, was extended another month, through at least Dec. 21, last week. But some fear the closure could extend well into 2021 or even until 2022.

Robert Warren, a University of North Dakota professor, who formerly worked at the University of Manitoba, says it could be January 2022 before the border reopens for normal traffic between the two countries as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen. The distribution timing of the vaccine, on both sides of the border, as well as total coronavirus case counts will play a factor, Warren said.

“Canada’s not going to open up the border until the virus is under control down here,” he said.

The U.S.-Canada border has been closed since mid-March due to the pandemic. Essential workers have been able to cross for work and other essential business. Canadian citizens and permanent residents can cross the border, but with certain restrictions and quarantine periods required.

Canadian officials have also indicated that the border closures are likely to be in place for some time until the virus is under control in both countries.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in recent months the Canadian government is “committed to keeping Canadians safe.”

“As I’ve said from the beginning, we will continue to make sure that Canadian safety is top of mind when we move forward. We see the cases in the United States and elsewhere around the world and we need to continue to keep these border controls in place,” Trudeau said in a radio interview in October.

Earlier this month, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman told Oregon Public Radio that the border likely won’t reopen anytime soon.

“The pandemic seems to be escalating in both of our countries,” Hillman said. “That would seem to suggest that these measures are with us for a while.”

The closure has hurt business on both sides of the border. Hunting and fishing expeditions on the Canadian side have fallen steeply this summer, Warren said. On the U.S. side the closure has hurt border towns like Warroad, Minn., and others.

It’s also affected service industries, like hotels, in Grand Forks, N.D.

Ashok “Smiley” Thakker, owner of Days Inn in Grand Forks, Rodeway Inn and America’s Best Value Inn in Grand Forks, said business has been down this year due to the pandemic.

“So since March we haven’t had a single Canadian because the border shut down and it was a big hit,” he said.

Thakker said business has been down for much of the year at his hotels. The Rodeway was shut down for three months in March, April and May and business was slow in the summer months, when rooms would typically be booked up with Canadians and other travelers.

While it’s not the ideal way to get business, UND has been utilizing the Rodeway Inn as a quarantine space, which has helped Thakker’s business in a big way. Other organizations have utilized the Best Value Inn for similar reasons.

“It’s a big help… because otherwise, if we did not have this business, then we would be dead,” he said. “You don’t want to get business from a crisis. We want to get business from travelers coming for fun, shopping and games and weddings.”

This week would typically be a particularly busy weekend for hotels in the area with Black Friday shopping. The winter months are also typically busy due to hockey tournaments and other winter events.

Thakker is optimistic the border will reopen in the summer, but hopes there will be a plan put in place soon.

“How long can you wait? Because there is no end,” he said. “No one can tell when this will end, so we have to come up with some plan to open the border.”

Joe Cozart, general manager at the Ramada Inn, which is also owned by Thakker, said the area hotel industry was already affected by other factors, including anchor stores leaving the Columbia Mall, the downturn in the oil market in the state and Canadians choosing to bypass Grand Forks for Fargo and the Twin Cities for shopping. And now Canadian travel has come to halt.

Cozart said the pandemic has forced businesses to look closely at their business, and that means digging deep into financials and contracts and finding new revenue sources they may not have considered before.

“That’s the real nut behind COVID, is not to be positive about COVID. There is nothing positive about it,” he said. “But it did create an opportunity for us to really look at change. And if you don’t do that… you’re really missing the diamond in the rough.”

Simon Resch, owner of the Emerson Duty Free store on the Canadian side of the border in Manitoba, said there could be some differences in how each individual province may handle travel restrictions, which would continue to impact businesses in each country.

“(The virus) is running rampant in our part of the world right now,” he said. “Even if both federal governments agreed, we’re all still subject to jurisdictional borders.”

The upcoming change in administration, as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over leadership, may have an impact on the timing of closure announcements. Warren, who also worked as a civil servant in Manitoba as the director of capital markets, said the two sides may decide to close the border for an extended period of time, rather than reconsidering the measures on a month-to-month basis.

Manitobans in particular are closely watching what’s happening in North Dakota and Minnesota, Warren said. They want to be able to come down for groceries or shopping. They want life to return to some form of normalcy.

“They want to get back down here again, whether it’s to do business or just to be a tourist,” he said.

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