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The impact of the border closure? More distance between U.S. and Canada

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In previous summers, it would have been unthinkable to think this is the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge separating Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont. But it is. 

For residents of Buffalo, it's been nearly a century – since before the Peace Bridge – that Canada felt so far away.

Get used to that feeling, because for as long as the Covid-19 pandemic lasts, the U.S-Canadian border could remain shut. 

And when the border opens, the part of the nation that often felt like a suburb to Buffalo might not feel quite so much a part of us anymore.

We'll likely be less inclined to hop across the border for a day at the wineries, and fewer Canadians will flock to the Walden Galleria.

Fewer Canadians will live among us, and owning a cottage in Fort Erie might no longer be the thing.

Business will still be done across the border, and lots of it – but the very process of crossing the border will likely change. A Canadian customs agent may well zap your forehead to see if you have a fever.

That's the consensus among a dozen political, civic and business leaders on both sides of the border who were interviewed last week about a border reopening.

Western New York and Southern Ontario will remain closely tied after the Covid-19 pandemic passes, they said.

But the good old days of easy cross-border travel are likely over, at least for the next several years – and that fact could change habits and damage businesses on both sides of the border.

"We are beginning to realize that this is going to be very costly in some unprecedented way," said Charles Conteh, director of the Niagara Community Observatory, a public policy think tank based at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

A long-term closure

The U.S. and Canada shut the border to nonessential travel March 21 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The two nations have extended the shutdown monthly ever since, and Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who has been pushing for a loosening of the travel restrictions, sees no signs that the shutdown will end soon.

"I think we're looking at the border being closed until the end of the year," Higgins said.

Several people interviewed said the Canadian government seems particularly adamant about keeping the border shut until the United States gets the pandemic under control.

That's not surprising, given public sentiment north of the border. An Ipsos poll of Canadians last week found that four out of every five Canadians want the border to stay shut.

That sentiment is based on two facts: Canada has largely "flattened the curve," trimming the coronavirus infection rate to about a quarter of what it was at its peak. Meanwhile in the United States – which has reported nearly 32 times more Covid-19 cases than Canada – the number of cases continues to hit record levels.

"We watch what's happening to you guys, and it's terrifying," said Dolores Fabiano, executive director of the South Niagara Chambers of Commerce in Ontario.

A tourism 'tsunami'

The border closure disrupted what has been routine in the Buffalo Niagara region. Buffalo residents won't be making any day trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer, and Hamilton residents won't be crossing the border for Buffalo Bills games.

But the shutdown has done much more than that. The era of easy border crossings – already irrevocably altered by post-9/11 restrictions – is over, and it's likely to be years before another such era starts.

"We're not expecting tourism to come back to 2018 or 2019 levels until probably 2022 or 2023," said Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. "So we know we're in this for the long haul."

Between the border shutdown and the other limits the pandemic has placed on business operations, some retailers and restaurants and hotels won't survive the long haul. Some already have closed, and many more will on both sides of the border, several people interviewed said.

"The real devastating blow is in the cultural industries and also the hospitality industry," said Conteh, an associate professor of public policy and management at Brock University. "It's a tsunami that Covid-19 has unleashed."

Cultural institutions like the Shaw Festival and Artpark will survive the tsunami, given that they are so deeply ingrained into the summertime habits of people on both sides of the border, those interviewed said. 

"People are creatures of habit, right?" said Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "So I think it's fair to assume that at the point at which the border is opening and there is a Bills or Sabres game, Canadians are going to come over.

"But the idea of going over to Buffalo to have lunch and do some shopping – that's the stuff that I think, longer term, is not going to be on people's list of things to do," she added.

A vacation home shakeup?

Amid the pandemic, there's already evidence that the idea of owning a vacation home on the other side of the border is losing its charm.

Many Canadians are anxious to sell their properties in Ellicottville, said Jonathan Orlow, a team leader at Keller Williams Realty Inc. Many bought those homes when the U.S. and Canadian dollars were at par, and are cashing in now that the U.S. dollar is worth $1.36 Canadian.

Canadians are selling even though they can't come back to the U.S. to claim their personal property.

"We're going to need a storage warehouse for the personal things we're hanging on to for people," Orlow said.

Americans are snapping up the properties Canadians are selling.

"I think that coronavirus made people think they want to have a place to escape to," Orlow said.

Buffalo-area residents who own cottages in Canada thought they had such a place, only to find themselves blocked at the border this summer.

There's been no obvious rush to sell those properties, which in many cases have belonged to the same family for generations.

But that could change, said Kathryn B. Friedman, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a member of the research faculty at the University at Buffalo.

"People will rethink whether or not their property investments in Canada are worth the quote/unquote hassle," she said.

The supply chain holds

Essential travelers – such as medical personnel – still can cross the border. So can big rigs carrying parts from a Canadian supplier to an American manufacturer, or vice versa, as the two nations deemed trade-related travel to be essential, too.

For that reason, experts expect the trade relationship between the two nations to survive Covid-19. 

Commercial truck traffic over the Peace Bridge is down about 15%, but that's because of the economic downturn, not the border restrictions, said Don Cyr, president of the Niagara Industrial Association, a Canadian group.

"We're not getting any sense from our members that they're having any difficulty with their (cross-border) supply chains," Cyr said.

Craig W. Turner, president and CEO of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, agreed. What's more, with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement now in effect, Turner said Canadian companies looking to do business in the United States will look to Buffalo as a springboard to the American market.

"If you're going to run your supply chain by trying to bring everything as close to your customers as you possibly can, we're as close to the North American customers as anybody is going to be," Turner said. "I think it's a huge advantage for us as we as we look at what the new normal is going be."

A gradual reopening?

Knowing the border won't fully open anytime soon, the co-chairs of the House Northern Border Caucus – Higgins and Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York's North Country – are pushing hard for a partial reopening.

They inserted language into a House spending bill that passed last week that calls on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to work with Canada to allow family members to visit and allow property owners to inspect their homes across the border.

To hear Higgins tell it, that's just common sense.

"You're not going out there to congregate in a pool party on the beach," he said. "You're going out there to secure your property."

Meanwhile, Stefanik has been pressing Canadian officials to allow American boaters to navigate in Canadian waters provided that they don't dock or drop anchor.

"I think there are workable solutions to have a gradual reopening," Stefanik said, adding: "There has been more hesitancy, I believe, on the Canadian side." 

Friedman, of UB, and Conteh developed a series of principles aimed at guiding the eventual reopening back in May, and beyond that, Friedman has come to another conclusion.

"In my view, there is going to be some sort of permanent health screening measures," she said. "Would taking somebody's temperature be enough? I don't think so."

Several other of the leaders interviewed agreed that temperature checks, at a minimum, would have to be implemented at a reopened border. More stringent measures could include requiring proof of a negative recent coronavirus test, or even an on-the-spot test at the border.

For now, though, it appears the United States and Canada are not even seriously discussing such measures. Friedman sees that as a sign the shutdown will continue indefinitely.

"Canadians don't want that border open, as they indicated," she said. "And there's no indication by the U.S. government that they want the border open, either."


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