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North Country marks anniversary of border closure

Published: Mar. 18, 2021 at 4:16 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 19, 2021 at 5:22 AM EDT
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CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. (WCAX) - This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the restrictions placed at the U.S.-Canadian border. For a year now, cross-border travel has been limited to essential travel, and with no expectations of opening any time soon, it’s costing the region millions in lost commerce.

“It’s been the most challenging year, I think we’ve had for decades,” said Karl Moore an economic professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday that the U.S. is extending travel restrictions through April 21.

“The restrictions that we have seen in place over the past year have pretty much been unprecedented in my recollection in my time at the border in over 20 years,” said Craig Gommel with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The Champlain Port of Entry is one of the largest on the northern border and a direct line from Montreal to New York City. In 2018, over 333,000 thousand vehicles were counted crossing the border. In 2019, it was up over 342,000. This past year, that number was down to just 30,000. “Our traffic has declined for personal travel by 90%,” Gommel said.

With bus companies hitting the brakes and personal travel prohibited, the northern border looks like a ghost town, and it’s having a ripple effect on nearby communities.

“It’s been very different. Let’s start with different -- difficult and different,” said Village of Champlain Mayor Janet McFetridge. She says people who live on or near the border are used to crossing it regularly to grab a coffee, for a quick shopping trip, or for a weekend getaway to the city. “It goes both ways. As much as we look forward to them coming here, we look forward to going to Quebec.”

Our neighbors to the north are a key component of the North Country’s economy. “On a good year -- and last year was on track to be a good year if things hadn’t changed -- Canadians spend over $350 million in retail purchases in Clinton County alone, never mind the neighboring counties,” said Garry Douglas with the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

When the pandemic hit and the county moved quickly to see where it could cut costs. The region banks on tourism, and while some parts made out okay thanks to shopping local and the COVID flight of downstaters, not all businesses benefitted.

At many area marinas, boats spent the warmer months out of the water after being blocked by the border. Campgrounds, another industry that counts on Canadians, were largely empty. That lack of tourists trickles to local businesses that rely on those day trips and weekend getaways. “We noticed a significant decline in gross revenue,” said Nathan Lague, owner of Lakeside Coffee in Rouses Point.

“From a financial standpoint, the entire county is facing a serious financial loss,” said Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Michael Cashman. He says to understand the effects of the border closure, all you need to do is look at the parking lots and see the lack of Quebec license plates. “I think it’s still gonna be a long while until people fully understand what that impact was, well past when the Canadian border reopens.”

So what will it take to get the border back open? Officials on both sides of the border say vaccination and herd immunity will be the key to getting back to normal, whatever that new normal looks like.

The only issue is the pace of rollout. “The vaccines aren’t rolling out in Canada. Canada is woefully behind the U.S. We need to just say that forthrightly. We need to just say that so everyone understands they are months behind us,” Cashman said.

It’s estimated that Canada is two to three months behind the U.S. when it comes to residents getting the vaccine. “We are frustrated in Canada about the lack of vaccine, which is a failure of the government to a large degree, and we’ve been locked down,” Moore said.

Federal partners have been talking with Canada about a plan to reopen, but local officials say they are not hearing much. “Frankly, it’s just crickets in response. There is just no political will, no popular demand at the current time on the northern side of the border to move that needle,” Douglas said.

“I think we are all going to wait patiently until such a time as the health situation allows us to loosen border restrictions internationally, that will be eventually but not for today,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week.

Local officials are hopeful that as more doses go out, the restrictions could start to loosen, but that the interest in reopening needs to come from both sides of the border. “We will keep pushing for those things, but I am less optimistic than I was two weeks ago,” Douglas said.

Officials expect the border could remain closed for several more months.

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