Fort and Falls mayors are excited but cautious about border reopening

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

While the Canada-United States border is set to open up even further early next month, the mayors of Fort Frances and International Falls are expressing some concerns even as they celebrate the communities being able to connect once more.

Following the move by the Canadian government to reopen the land border to U.S. travellers back in August, the U.S. land border will be reopened to fully vaccinated Canadian travellers in November, bringing a 20-month-long closure to an end. The world’s largest land border was originally closed in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and closures became the new normal.

Fort Frances Mayor June Caul shared that she is “on-the-fence” about the border reopening. On the one hand she is glad that families will be able to reconnect after years apart. However, she said she is still hesitant about health and safety concerns, particularly for seniors who are more at risk of health complications from COVID-19.

“I worry about the fact that we haven’t gotten our own country completely healed yet, never mind letting people go back and forth,” she said.

“We know the numbers have been up and down also in Minnesota, so that concerns me, but I am happy for people who will be able to go back and forth to see relatives, and I know lots of snowbirds will want to go south. For tourism, both coming and going, it’s great, but I still have a little bit of trepidation about it.”

Across the border, International Falls mayor Harley Droba said he is less concerned with the health impacts of Canadians travelling into the United States, particularly as vaccine numbers continue to rise in both countries.

“The way I look at it is, we’ve had so much time to be vaccinated, both on the American and Canadian sides, and those who want to be vaccinated have been,” he said.

“Those that have not been vaccinated are not coming over, so in my opinion, it’s the safest route that we can take to get to a sense of economic normalcy.”

Droba said his community is looking forward to welcoming back Canadian travellers, particularly as the impact has extended beyond tourism and other business.

“We’re obviously very excited to have our Canadian friends and families come over and utilize our community,” Droba said.

“We’ve missed both the commerce as well as the friendship and fellowship. We have so many families that have been separated between the last two years, so we’re very happy to have them come back.”

However, there are still concerns regarding how Canadians will travel back and forth between the two countries. At time of writing, the Canadian government requires anyone entering Canada to have a negative PCR or accepted test that is less than 72 hours old, even if they are fully vaccinated. For many coming into Canada, this test must be acquired in their country of origin states. The government states on its website that “Canadian citizens, people registered under the Indian Act, permanent residents and protected persons travelling to the United States are allowed to do their pre-entry molecular test before they leave Canada.” The United States government requires no such test, only proof of or attestation to their vaccination status, according to the CBC. 

However, this still leaves the burden of the test on the individual traveller, something both Caul and Droba worry could hamper efforts to bring the communities and shared economy back together.

“I can tell you there’s been some talk amongst border mayors of Ontario hoping that [negative test] requirement can be lifted,” Caul said.

“If you don’t need anything going across [to the U.S. side], as long as you proved you’ve been vaccinated, they feel it’s time to take that [requirement] away, and it’s so expensive for people to have to even do, I’m sure it will deter a lot of people from even going across because of that.”

Caul continued on to say that the consortium of border mayors will likely be meeting in the near future and corresponding with the Minister of Public Safety following Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle. According to information released on Tuesday morning, the new minister will be Mark Mendicino.

Droba echoed Caul’s concerns with people potentially being put off crossing due to the test requirements.

“That is the exact concern I have,” Droba said.

“I think you’ll have some families come over because it’s been so long since they’ve been able to see each other, but just to pop over to go to the grocery store and gas station, I just don’t see that for a while.”

Droba shared that he feels the greater impact of the border closure on the area’s economy is something that won’t be seen until a few years have passed, but he noted that while Canadian travellers were mostly barred from crossing into the States, other travellers helped make up for the difference.

“With the Canadian border being closed, we’ve had more Americans literally stop at the end of the road here in International Falls,” Droba explained.

“So our commerce has still been relatively good, just a different type of commerce, but we definitely missed the Canadian traffic coming this way.”

Still, Droba noted that there has been plenty of change in and around International Falls that will hold some surprises for whenever the majority of Canadian travellers, particularly those from Fort Frances and nearby areas, are able to return to our sister city to the south. In addition to business turnover, Droba said new businesses, along with infrastructure changes and improvements have been taking place throughout the closure.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of a shock for those who haven’t been over from all of the things that have happened in the last two years,” he said.

“We have two new hotels being built, we’ve had a ton of growth, road construction, brand new gas stations, we’ve had a lot change since the last time you were here.”