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Border With Canada to Open, and North Country ‘Could Not Be Happier’

Fall has traditionally been a fat time for businesses in New York’s North Country, as Canadian visitors flood into the region to celebrate …

Border With Canada to Open, and North Country ‘Could Not Be Happier’

Fall has traditionally been a fat time for businesses in New York’s North Country, as Canadian visitors flood into the region to celebrate holidays like Canadian Thanksgiving, taking in dazzling displays of foliage and feasting on big sales at local retailers.

That influx has been stymied at the border for much of the last two years by strict controls implemented because of the coronavirus. On Wednesday, however, businesses all along the state’s northern border were celebrating the news that in November, fully vaccinated Canadians would again be allowed into the United States via the two nations’ heavily trafficked land crossings.

“A simple ‘Yahoo!’ seems to be the right answer,” said Kristy Kennedy, the vice president of marketing and tourism for the North Country Chamber of Commerce, in Plattsburgh, about 25 miles south of Quebec. “We could not be happier.”

That sentiment spread across the state to Niagara Falls and other western New York towns and cities, where the border restrictions — and burdensome rules for American travel to Canada — had crippled usually robust business relationships as well as personal ones, separating some extended families for a year or longer.

Raj Suchak, 44, of Williamsville, N.Y., said that he and his wife’s parents — all living in Toronto suburbs — hadn’t been able to visit the United States for much of the pandemic, leaving them pining to see their grandchildren, despite living only about a two-hour drive away. “We missed most of the major holidays, school holidays, everything,” he said.

And when Mr. Suchak’s mother-in-law finally figured a way in, the route was torturous: flying from Toronto to Newark, and then driving back to the Buffalo region. The total travel time? About 15 hours.

Canadians living in the United States felt similar pangs. Sylvie Nelson, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, said her extended family and friends were all forbidden from entering for the last 19 months.

“It’s terrible,” said Ms. Nelson, 55, who hails from Quebec, a little more than an hour to the north. “You’re so close and yet so far away.”

The economic and emotional pains came after several years of declining fortunes in some border communities brought on by stricter immigration policies, as well as broader societal shutdowns of businesses during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. Sales tax revenue in manycounties along the border suffered as reliable customers from Ontario and Quebec were forced to stay home.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle had been clamoring for the Biden administration to lift the ban on Canadians’ nonessential travel for months, particularly after the Canadian government eased restrictions entering in August.

“There was snow still on the ground when we started asking for this,” said State Senator Daniel Stec, a Republican who represents much of the North Country, adding that the reopening plan was “overdue, but better late than never.”

Indications of the long shutdown were everywhere: boats with Canadian registrations sitting in dry dock along Lake Champlain, and American marinas and lakeside businesses on Lake Erie watching as Canadian fishermen stayed on their side of the water.

“We don’t get the transient boaters that used to come across the lake,” said State Senator George Borello, a Republican who also owns a waterside restaurant in Irving, N.Y.

Pat Whalen, president of the Canadian American Border Trade Alliance, said that the change in policy was welcome, but that he feared damage has already been done to the close ties between western New York and Southern Ontario, where many residents, of both nations, own property on the other side of the border.

With travel restricted, some sold their second homes, severing generations of connections. “That people-to-people relationship is fraying,” Mr. Whalen said.

The border closing had an impact even in areas not immediately adjacent to the border, like Ellicottville, N.Y., about 50 miles south of Buffalo, which has long been popular with Canadians looking to ski. The town is home to a bevy of slopes and ski condos, along with resorts advertising their love for their northern neighbors.

Nick Pitillo, a local restaurateur and lifelong resident, said that business was better during Columbus Day weekend, particularly compared with the dark days of 2020, but was still off about 15 percent.

“We had a great week, but you could definitely feel their absence,” he said, adding that Ellicottville had also seen many Canadians sell their property during the pandemic. “We look forward to welcoming everyone back.”

Canadians have long liked shopping in the United States, where they avoid federal sales taxes imposed by the Canadian government. And on Wednesday, retailers across New York seemed thrilled that such shoppers might soon be coming back across the border. So did leaders of several tribal casinos that dot western New York and the North Country, including the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, where gaming was badly hurt by the lack of Canadian gamblers.

At the Walden Galleria, a huge mall just east of Buffalo, just off the New York Thruway, officials said retailers were already planning “Welcome Back Canadians!” sales.

“Our Canadian customers have always represented a significant part of our business,” said Stephen J. Congel, the chief executive of the mall’s parent company, Pyramid Management Group. “So we are excited to welcome our beloved northern neighbors back into the country.”

On Lake Champlain, meanwhile, Norman Lague, the owner of Lakeside Coffee in Rouses Point, N.Y., which sits on the border, said if there was a silver lining to the 19-month shutdown, it was that it forced him and other business owners to develop deeper connections with their own communities.

“We feel we’re stronger,” said Mr. Lague, a former border patrol agent.

That said, he also said he was looking forward to seeing more Canadian boats and cars sitting outside his lakeside cafe.

“Its going to be nice to see some faces that we’ve haven’t seen,” he said.

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