As countries stay locked down, US-Canadian border communities struggle

Janet Weinstein/ABC NewsBy JANET WEINSTEIN, ABC News

(DERBY LINE, Vt.) — Stansted, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, are adjoining small towns along the U.S.-Canadian border where the international line snakes through people’s homes, down the middle of a main street and divides the public library in half. They share the same water and each town’s fire department will jump in to help out if there’s trouble.

It’s been almost nine months since the land border shut and crossings were limited to essential travel only due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Single passport citizens can’t cross unless they are performing essential work and dual citizens must quarantine for two weeks on either side, making casual back-and-forth trips impossible.

Officials have not even given a timetable for when the limits will be removed.

For this tiny remote community, and others like it along the international boundary, the new reality is devastating.

“I’m now starting to have lonely feelings and I miss them,” Vermont grandmother Wendy Bronson told ABC News. “And with the holidays coming, it’s worse.”

Bronson said she has lived along the international line her whole of life. Her days have always included frequent back and forth trips. Her dentist and dermatologist are in Canada. Her job involves visiting nearby Canadian stores. Some of her children and grandchildren live less than 20 miles away in Canada.

“You just kind of take it for granted, don’t you?” she said. “There has been this open space all my life that was just the, ‘Hi, how’re you doing, Mrs. Bronson?’ at the border.”

Even though members of Bronson’s family are dual citizens and can legally cross, they are subject to strictly monitored 14-day quarantines that neither can afford to do regularly.

“I have to remind myself that I’m better off than some and not get on the pity party,” she said. “That is really hard when you’re close to your family and you see them on a regular basis, three or four times a week, and then you can’t see them. FaceTime does not cut that, you know, it doesn’t cut it.”

Bronson started to choke up: “I was shut off from my family … and I can’t get to my kids if they need me. They can’t get to me if they need me.”

Small business owner Jane McIntyre runs Jane’s Cafe, a three-minute walk from the border in Derby Line. She said her business is taking a big hit from the border closure.

“Normally, this road would be very busy because of all the cars coming through,” she said as she stands outside her quiet cafe. She said most of her customers aren’t “regulars,” but instead cross-border travelers on their way to either country.

“I think I could probably survive until next fall — September, October — and then I think I would have to give up if it doesn’t change,” she said.

Patrol agent in charge of Newport Station Erik Lavallee said he understands the community’s frustration. He’s worked this section of the border for more than 16 years and said many of his agents are active in the community.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic does not know borders. It does not keep itself to one community or another,” Lavallee told ABC News. “We’re trying to minimize any impact to our local communities and health care resources, and maintain what we do have for the safety and security of our citizens.”

He said there have been instances of people meeting outside the Haskell Library, an area where the boundary is marked by a row of potted plants. But, he said, he discourages it.

“There have been plenty of instances where we’ve come across folks that are much less than 6 feet. No masks, and especially coming from other parts of the United States, not quarantining prior to meeting up with family members,” he explained.

“So from our perspective, in order to keep the community safe and my agents, my personnel here, safe, we’re trying to limit the meetings as best as we can.”

There are others with strong American and Canadian ties facing a similar struggle. Two months ago, Devon Weber — an American living in Toronto with her Canadian husband — started a Facebook group called “Let Us Reunite.” She said it has already grown to more than 1,500 families, many of whom are from border communities. She is now leading the organization’s efforts to start lobbying the U.S. government.

“The Canadian government has twice passed family travel exemptions,” Weber told ABC News. “We’re asking for reciprocal family travel exemption so our Canadian family can travel to the United States.”

Her team also advocates amending land border restrictions because she said there’s a loophole: Canadians can fly into the U.S. for nonessential reasons, but not drive, specifically hurting border communities.

“People that live five minutes apart now have to take four airplanes, spend $1,000 and travel 10 hours to see their loved ones,” she said. “That just seems ridiculous to me.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., represents border communities in northern New York. He calls the policy “a disconnect.”

“We should expect that the Department of Homeland Security in the United States and our public health officials in Canada would work to create parity as to who can come and how, what mode of transportation they can use. That disparity is not helpful,” Higgins told ABC News.

He said Buffalo and western New York sees 80% of their sales tax revenues on the weekends from Canadian shoppers. He also said Canadians spend $10 million a year on health services in the area and 40% of people flying out of Buffalo’s airport are Canadian. His district feels this acutely.

But, he added, “The only thing that you can do without a vaccine, without a treatment, is to do all the things that are necessary to drive down the number of COVID-19 cases you have.”

And that means keeping the border closed.

The US Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately respond for comment.

For now, McIntyre, of Jane’s Cafe, said she is keeping focused on her internal mantra as she tries to make her way through this unprecedented time.

“The best thing in my life that I can always do is keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she said.

“Do what you need to do that day to make yourself and everybody around you feel better,” McIntyre continued. “And the rest will have to work itself out.”

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