Syndication: Detroit Free Press

Travel is still restricted between the United States and Canada but that may be changing soon. A drone photo shows the Ambassador Bridge, that connects the U.S. to Canada is virtually empty except for trucking traffic on April 2, 2020. MAIN_Quietdetroit 020

After a 19-month freeze, the United States is planning to open up its land borders with Canada and Mexico just in time for snowbird season. That could lead to a busy winter in Lake Havasu City as the usually consistent flow of snowbirds from the Great White North are able return to town in numbers for the first time since the pandemic kicked off in the spring of 2020.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas announced his department will amend the regulations to allow non-essential travelers who have been fully vaccinated for covid-19 to cross the land border with Canada and Mexico – if they can provide proof they have been vaccinated. The United States’ borders with both countries have been closed to non-essential travel since the covid pandemic was declared in March 2020. A press release from Homeland Security said the new regulations are expected to go into effect for non-essential travelers in November. By mid-January, even essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., such as truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated.

“Cross-border travel creates significant economic activity in our border communities and benefits our broader economy,” Mayorkas said in the release. “We are pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner.”

The announcement was met with excitement locally as a significant portion of Lake Havasu City’s typical snowbird crowd will be able to return for the first time in about 20 months. Rachael Atkinson, with Destination Havasu, welcomed the news on Wednesday after hoping that the border would reopen for the last several months.

“While we tried to be optimistic and hopeful, we genuinely didn’t think we were going to see this happen. So we are extremely excited,” Atkinson said. “I think this is a huge blessing to Lake Havasu because Canadians make up a very large portion of our winter business. We all were speaking together as colleagues about what we can do, and what avenues we can explore because everybody was kind of stumped when we were able to have Canadians fly in but not drive over the border.”

Although Canadians were previously allowed to fly over the border, that still presented some significant hurdles for typical Canadian snowbirds who generally drive south for the winter so they can have their vehicle available while staying in the country for several months at a time.

Atkinson said the announcement comes just in time, as Destination Havasu and other property management companies in town were trying to hold off but expected to have to start processing some cancellations for Canadians starting in November if the border was still closed. But those worries seem to be in the past.

Atkinson said she hadn’t had a lot of calls from Canadians as of Wednesday afternoon, but expects to be fielding lots of phone calls today as the news of the reopening spreads.

“I think a lot of our Canadians that are already booked are going to be calling to verify – in very excited terms – that they are coming and they are driving,” she said. “Then I think those who were holding out, crossing their fingers and hoping – I think we will see a surge in bookings happening in the next two to three weeks.”

Winter is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year in Havasu as a popular destination for snowbirds – both international and domestic. Although the city saw its fair share of snowbirds in 2020, Atkinson said the loss of the Canadians were certainly felt in the local vacation rental industry. But with news of the reopening, Atkinson predicted that this winter could swing in the other direction with even more Canadians potentially interested in traveling outside their country for the first time in about two years.

“Because the Canadians have been so cooped up for so long, I think it could make our winter season even better than normal,” she said. “They haven’t been able to travel like we all have been.” “I think the excitement of this announcement today will be bringing even more people who maybe would have waited.”

Border towns expect a boost

News of the borders reopening was cheered by more than just tourist towns. Shopping malls and big box retailers in U.S. border towns whose parking spaces had been filled by cars with Mexican license plates were hit hard by travel restrictions.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the economic impact was hard to quantify but can be seen in the sparse presence of shoppers at a high-end outlet mall on the city’s border with Tijuana, Mexico. The decision comes at a critical time ahead of the holiday shopping season.

In Nogales travel restrictions forced about 40 retail businesses to close on the main strip in the city of 20,000 people, said Jessy Fontes, board member of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce and owner of Mariposa Liquidation Store, which sells household appliances. His sales fell 60%, and he considered closing but instead cut his staff from seven to two.

In Del Rio, Texas, Mexican visitors account for about 65% of retail sales, said Blanca Larson, executive director of the chamber of commerce and visitors bureau in the city of 35,000 people.

“Along the border, we’re like more of one community than two different communities,” she said.

The ban has also had enormous social and cultural impact, preventing family gatherings when relatives live on different sides of the border. Community events have stalled even as cities away from U.S. borders have inched toward normalcy.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where hockey and ice skating are ingrained, the Soo Eagles haven’t had a home game against a Canadian opponent in 20 months. The players, 17 to 20 years old, have been traveling to Canada since border restrictions were lifted there two months ago. Now the U.S. team can host.

“I almost fell over when I read it,” said Ron Lavin, co-owner of the Eagles. “It’s been a long frustrating journey for people on a lot of fronts far more serious than hockey, but we’re just really pleased. It’s great for the city.”

Crossing the border

Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents have been allowed into Canada since August, provided they have waited at least two weeks since getting their second vaccine dose and can show proof of a recent negative covid-19 test. Mexico has not enforced covid-19 entry procedures for land travelers.

The latest move follows last month’s announcement that the U.S. will end country-based travel bans for air travel and instead require vaccination for foreign nationals seeking to enter by plane.

The new rules only apply to legal entry. Those who enter illegally will still be subject to expulsion under a public health authority that allows for the swift removal of migrants before they can seek asylum.

Travelers entering the U.S. by vehicle, rail and ferry will be asked about their vaccination status as part of the standard U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection. At officers’ discretion, travelers will have their proof of vaccination verified in a secondary screening process.

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative covid-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted.

Officials said the CDC was still working to formalize procedures for admitting those who received doses of two different vaccines, as was fairly common in Canada.

Mayorkas said he was “pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner” and lauded the economic benefits of it.

Mexico, Canada and elected officials from U.S. border regions have pressured the Biden administration for months to ease restrictions.

“This is a win for families who’ve been separated and businesses and tourism industries whose operations have been blocked since the start of the pandemic,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, echoing reactions of other federal, state and local officials.

Mexico President Andres Manuel López Obrador said it took “many meetings to achieve the opening of the border.” Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of public safety, called the announcement “one more step toward returning to normal.”

Cross-border traffic has plummeted since the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

The number of vehicle passengers entering the U.S. in Niagara Falls, New York — the busiest land crossing on the Canadian border — fell 83% to 1.7 million in 2020 and has remained low this year.

“Losing those customers over the last 18 months has been one of the primary reasons our hotels, restaurants and attractions have been suffering,” said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the area’s tourism agency.

At San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing, the nation’s busiest, crossings dropped 30% last year to 18 million. Taxi drivers were largely idled Wednesday on a nearby bridge, including one who did exercises.

Covid-19 cases in the U.S. have dropped to about 85,000 per day, the lowest level since July. Per capita case rates in Canada and Mexico have been markedly lower than the U.S. for the duration of the pandemic, which amplified frustrations about the U.S. travel restrictions.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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