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ON THE SCENE: Locals suffer from the closed border blues

Canadian border into Quebec (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Travel between the United States and Canada is getting harder, not that it’s been a piece of cake for the last nine months. The new restrictions have made life even more difficult for North Country residents who have family or close friends in Canada or who have traveled there on business.

On March 18, 2020, Canadian and U.S. government leaders announced the border’s closure to all but essential travelers, such as people working in hospitals and truckers carrying goods between the two countries. There were a few loopholes, Canadians could fly to the United States and, upon entering, were usually required to go into quarantine depending on state guidelines where they landed.

Last June, Canada modified travel restrictions for Canadian’s immediate family members living in the States. They were allowed to travel to Canada if they agreed to stay in Canada for at least 15 days, quarantining for 14 of those days. The U.S. has not yet allowed Canadians to come south for similar reasons.

On Jan. 6, border crossings got even harder. All travelers going to Canada by air must fly into one of four airports: Calgary, Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. They must prove they had a negative test taken within 72 hours before their arrival, take mandatory PCR testing upon arrival and then stay in a government-approved hotel for three days at their expense while waiting for the results. The hotel charges are estimated to be over $2,000.

On Friday, Jan. 29, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that non-essential travelers at the land borders would soon be required to show proof of a negative test before entry and meet even more stringent requirements in the coming weeks. In addition, Canada is ending at least through April all flights to the Caribbean and Mexico.

Jodi Downs (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“No one should be traveling right now,” announced Patty Hajdu, Canadian Minister of Health, in a Jan. 29 press release. “Each of us has a part in keeping our communities safe, and that means avoiding non-essential travel, which can put you, your loved ones, and your community at risk.”

My partner Renee, a Canadian citizen who works in Ottawa, took advantage of a long job-related winter break to be in Keene Valley for the past four weeks, arriving here after a nine-month separation. Renee got here by flying Air Canada to Chicago and transferring to a United flight to Albany, where I met her. Before departing Canada, she had been tested regularly as part of her work. Even so, she went into quarantine upon arrival.

Last Sunday, I drove Renee to the Champlain border crossing where she’s allowed to walk across, having arranged travel back to Montreal. Once there, she’ll go into quarantine for the next two weeks. Fortunately, Renee will be arriving back in Canada days before the possible three-day hotel requirement is enacted at the land border. The earliest she could potentially return is the end of June.

A year ago, Jodi Downs of Keene Valley spent the month of January in Canada helping to care for her family members with health issues. In June, her aunt, one of the relatives she’d been helping, died, and Jodi couldn’t go back for the funeral and assist a cousin who requested her help. While allowed to come to Canada under the government’s family support program, she couldn’t afford the cost of staying quarantined in a hotel for two weeks. While Jodi did attend the funeral via Zoom, she felt helpless and deeply saddened that she could not be there for her cousin.

“It tears my heart every day,” said Downs.

A year ago, Danielle Ostiguy Rodzinski was near Hudson Bay visiting her daughters when she got word that Trudeau was about to close the border to all non-essential travel from the U.S. Guessing that President Donald Trump would soon follow suit, she hopped on a flight to Montreal, packed quickly and drove across the border into the U.S. shortly before it closed on March 18 so she could ride out the COVID pandemic with her husband Richard at their home in Lake Placid. Since then, Ostiguy has not been able to return.

What they didn’t expect was the pandemic exploding. After several months it became clear it would not end soon. They had a hard choice. Ostiguy could return to Canada or apply for a green card as a means of staying here beyond 180 days. Remaining in the U.S. would mean being separated from her two daughters, her sisters and friends.

“It’s frustrating,” said Ostiguy. “I just missed the birth of my daughter’s baby. I have two daughters, my sisters and an apartment that I’m paying rent on in Canada. I’ve applied for a green card, and that cost $10,000 to get a good lawyer. Now, of course, since I’ve been in the U.S. for over 180 days, I lost my car insurance. So, I had to register my car here, that’s another thousand, and get a New York driver’s license, license plate and new car insurance. Then there’s dealing with everything that has to do with health. Plus, I’m away from my friends, a pse sur to. How do you say that in English? It weighs on you.”

Ivan Robertson of Elizabethtown’s 91-year-old mom is living in assisted-living in Huntingdon, Quebec. Robertson used to visit her every two weeks to do her major shopping, run errands, and get her birdseed so she could continue her beloved pastime of feeding birds. All that stopped last March, and he’s not been able to see her in person since. As his mother doesn’t use social media, they talk by phone, and he does what he can by purchasing supplies through Amazon.ca and other outlets.

“We’re just plugging along,” said Robertson.

The closed border blocks Fine Arts Magazine publishes Victor Forbes of Keene Valley from meeting with advertisers, artists, and close friends and delivering his magazine to outlets in Montreal. While he’s frustrated by the closure and its economic impact on his work, he counts himself lucky compared to many others who are far worse off.

“It’s sad that the world has come to this,” said Forbes. “There’s nothing we can do about it. Who can blame Canada for closing its borders? While it’s cut deeply into my revenue stream and distribution outlets, many people have it much worse than I do. Many retail stores and restaurants are dying. It’s going to take years to build back.”

As we waited in line for the Canadian border guards to check her papers, Renee wished that the U.S. would, like Canada, allow Canadians to visit their immediate family members living in the U.S.

The more significant wish by Renee and many others is that people would put the safety and well-being of their community as their higher priority by washing hands, wearing masks and staying social distanced.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)