After 16 months, reopening of U.S.-Canada border may come too late for hundreds of businesses

Summer travel may be heating up, but most Americans looking to cross the northern border into Canada must continue to wait. The border’s extended closure has not only put a hold on travel plans but also devastated an industry that brought in more than $20 billion to the U.S. in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association.

The 16-month closure of the U.S.-Canada border has affected small businesses from coast to coast, but some in popular tourist areas are starting to profit from the nationwide travel boom. Others are struggling without Canadian customers who were once their main source of revenue.

“Niagara Falls, New York, and the Niagara region in Canada, I’ve always likened it to a neighborhood separated by that river,” said Robert Restaino, mayor of Niagara Falls. “And I think what you see is like having a neighborhood cut off from your community.”

Calls to open the border have intensified in recent weeks, with business leaders and politicians on both sides of the border pushing for a reopening to vaccinated travelers. As of July 5, people who are vaccinated are exempt from the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, and talks about fully reopening the border are expected to resume July 21, according to the Canadian government’s official website.

But business owners and families separated by the border say the indefinite closure has made the path forward frustratingly unclear, especially because the two countries agreed June 21 — when restrictions were originally set to expire — to extend the closure by at least another month.

The next few weeks may bring more substantial movement toward reopening as restrictions loosen, but business owners in small towns say they are holding their breath. For those in remote areas that depend upon Canadian customers, the decision to keep the border closed each month makes it nearly impossible to recover from the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic.

“They’ve never given us a long-term plan,” said Mason Peters, owner of Mike’s Parcel package storage and pickup service in the small border town of Pembina, North Dakota. “Every month, [government officials] tell us it’s 30 more days. So how do you plan for six months from now if you have no idea what things will look like in six months from now?”

Peters, whose warehouse operates as a U.S. mailbox for Canadians looking to save money on customs fees and shipping prices, said he lost about 50 percent of his business overnight when the border shut. He said that even as vaccination rates picked up, his business exclusively served Canadian customers. For many of those customers, he said, crossing the border daily for personal or business reasons was a way of life that was completely altered by the border closing.

A nearly empty street in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, on March 2, 2021.Zou Zheng / Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images file

But tourist hubs like Niagara Falls — which once struggled to attract business under lockdown and suffered from the closure of the border — are experiencing rises in income from travel-starved Americans in nearby states eager to spend time outdoors.

“We have seen a pretty good uptick in guests from those areas. Typically, those are the areas that we have folks driving in from,” Restaino said. “And that being the case, a lot of folks aren’t ready quite yet to fly, so we’re getting a lot more vehicle traffic coming in from those areas.”

Shawn Weber, owner of the restaurant and bar Wine on Third in downtown Niagara Falls, said his business is thriving not only because of increased travel but also because Americans visiting the city can no longer travel across the bridge to Canada. Weber said there has been a complete shift in the types of tourists visiting his restaurant, with more coming from neighboring states instead of from abroad.

As it is for other restaurants across the country, the main challenge for his business is staffing, Weber said — an issue caused by the nationwide worker shortage, which has led to shortened hours, long wait times and unexpected closures at many restaurants.

“The ironic thing about the bridge closure is that very often when people travel to Niagara Falls, they go to the Canadian side, because they have more stuff going on over there,” Weber said. “So we’ve benefited a bit because people can’t go over there.”

Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, said another issue for small businesses on the border is whether their services are deemed “essential” and are allowed to cross — a determination often left up to the judgment of border officials. The tourism industry is not classified as “essential.”

“If you’re not transporting food or pharmaceutical products or ventilators, is your business essential or not?” Greenwood said. “So there’s a huge gray area that was combined with individual border guards [who] were given discretion.”

Peters said “essential” services are a “very, very, very small part” of what crosses the border daily, restricting most small businesses to their side. Now, as business owners await a possible reopening for “nonessential” services on July 21, the question is whether both governments will agree on allowing tourists to cross.

Greenwood said: “If on July 21, when the current border closure expires, if Canada wants to renew the closure and the U.S. wants to completely open up, what are we going to do? I think that’s a possibility. And that would be unfortunate.”