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Mixed reaction to Canadian border closing extension

A sign welcomes motorists to the Canadian province of Quebec just over the U.S. border. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Some northern New Yorkers bemoaned Tuesday’s long-hinted announcement that the Canada-U.S. border will be closed for a fourth month, until July 21. Others saw it as the right call. Others had mixed feelings.

The border closure, intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, does not block what is considered “essential travel,” which includes trade, commuting to work or school, and returning to home countries. But it block ban tourism and visiting family and friends. Cross-border tourism is a major part of the North Country economy, especially in summer. Also in this part of the world, many people’s personal lives overlap the border.

Guido and Kerri Langer live in Cobourg, Ontario, and have been coming to the Adirondacks to ski and camp since the early 1970s. They bought a house in Saranac Lake in 2013 and normally spend most weekends there. They were there in March when the border closed, and Guido said he would have liked to stick out the quarantine in Saranac Lake except they had obligations back in Cobourg.

He said Tuesday that he felt less comfortable when they returned home than he had in Saranac Lake.

“We would love to come back,” he said. “We’re looking at maybe late fall.”

Their son and his fiancee were scheduled to get married atop Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington this summer, but now they are looking at having a civil ceremony in Ontario this summer and the Whiteface wedding summer, Guido said.

Nevertheless, he thinks extending the border closure is the right thing to do. He said he’s been paying attention to U.S. news and is impressed with the way New York Gov. Andrew Andrew Cuomo has been managing the crisis; he feels the same way about Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

“We feel that we need to be a team player and go by whatever we’re being told by the people we’ve elected and have given the authority to do those things,” he said.

Not everyone feels that way. Linda Comito Moore of Saranac Lake posted on the Enterprise Facebook page that she would rather have seen travelers screened at the border for COVID-19 symptoms than to block them entirely.

“This will have a big negative impact on our tourist towns as we’ll miss the Canadian visitors and the vacation dollars they invest here for lodging, dining and retail shopping,” she wrote.

Our small businesses need that traffic to survive because revenue from local patrons is so low.

“If visitors are coming from NYC and other areas, there’s no reason why they couldn’t come from Quebec and Ontario.” The North Country Chamber of Commerce, based in Plattsburgh, criticized the decision Tuesday, saying the countries should have worked out a plan to reopen the border incrementally, in phases.

“We fully expected another thirty day extension,” chamber President Garry Douglas said in a press release, “but hoped there would be an accompanying commitment to develop potential phases for reopening linked to facts and performance rather than fear and feelings. It is an act of bi-national economic and social mismanagement of the world’s most important social and economic partnership to again act so simplistically without providing any conceptual pathway forward.”

Douglas is glad that commercial shipping between the U.S. and Canada remains uninterrupted, but he added, “Canada-U.S. business is not merely about the movement of boxes but about relationships, meetings, site and sales visits and face to face partnering. It is not a fact to say the economic connections are unaffected because they are more and more affected each passing week. And the continued tearing of the special social fabric that binds our two peoples is also, as we have said, profoundly sad and very damaging.”

New York state Assemblyman Billy Jones, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, issued a statement warning that the extended border closure “will have dire consequences.”

“It has been 87 excruciating days since the border restrictions have been put in place,” he said. “The continuation of this directive will undoubtedly have long-lasting consequences on both countries’ tourism industry, and on our economies as a whole. Further, as a region with strong international ties, there is a plethora of residents with family members who live in the opposite country. While it is encouraging that immediate family members can now cross, most cannot afford to be quarantined for 14 days.”

Sylvie Nelson lives in Saranac Lake with her husband and two children, works in Plattsburgh as executive director of the North Country Workforce Development Board, and has for many years spent two or three weekends a month in Quebec, where she grew up. Her family has a cottage there, as well as many friends and family members.

She has not been to her native country since early March, shortly before the pandemic lockdown began.

“It’s hard,” she said of the border closure. “I understand why it’s there, but it’s just disruptive to our way of life.”

She plans to return in July to help a friend recover from cancer treatments and so her daughter can go to a horse-riding camp. She plans to work from there, just as she is now working from home, and isolate herself in their cottage as much as possible.

She agreed with Douglas that a phased reopening would help people make plans, especially businesses. She noted that Canadian businesses rely on American tourists, too. A silver lining has been that since she and her family are not going to Canada on weekends, and since she and her husband are not commuting to work, they are getting out hiking in the Adirondacks more than ever before.

“It has enable our own family to discover our own backyard,” she said.