GRAND FORKS — Federal and state lawmakers from the region, as well as local business leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, were elated at the news that the U.S. will lift land border restrictions in November.
Lawmakers from North Dakota and Minnesota have long been vocal proponents of reopening the northern border, considering the high rates of vaccination for COVID-19 in Canada, and the fact that vaccinated Canadians can fly into the country, but not drive. It’s a policy position that some U.S. senators, including John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have long said was inconsistent.
In an Oct. 12 news release, U.S Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that fully vaccinated travelers will be allowed to drive across U.S. points of entry starting in November. The northern and southern land borders have been closed since March 2020. An exact opening date has not been announced.
Lawmakers say that part of the problem stems from the Biden administration treating the north and south border in a similar manner, when the situation surrounding each remains fundamentally different.
“Of course it made no sense what they were doing before,” Hoeven said. “Now they finally agreed to open it up and they should have done that a long time ago.”
Hoeven sent a letter to President Joe Biden on reopening the northern border, as well as joined Klobuchar in a bipartisan letter to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, questioning the medical need keeping the border closed.
“We’ve repeatedly made the case to the Biden administration to safely re-open the border, and this change in policy will be helpful in alleviating disruptions to border communities and our economy," Hoeven said.
Hoeven stressed the need to secure the southern border, and said there have been more than 1 million encounters of migrants this year crossing the border illegally. The northern border, he continued, is completely different because it is well-managed by both U.S. and Canadian officials.
Much like Hoeven, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., was elated at the announcement about reopening the border, but has also said the southern border must be secured.
“After months of urging the Biden administration to reopen the border with Canada, I am glad to finally see some positive movement,” Cramer said. “A closed border hurts our economy and puts unnecessary restraints on our communities. I urge President Biden to focus his attention more on fixing the crisis at our southern border and less on implementing harmful restrictions on North Dakotans.”
Klobuchar in an interview said it was great news that the northern border is set to reopen. Reopening levels the playing field for those driving into the country, at a time when they could fly to points in the U.S.
“I thought it was nuts that you could fly from Montreal to Fargo or you could fly to Florida, but you could not drive from Thunder Bay to Duluth, or from any points in Canada, unless it was for essential travel,” Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar said reopening the border will be a benefit to the economies of border states. She noted that Canadians are more likely to come to Minnesota for various winter activities, compared to people from other countries.
But reopening the borders isn’t just about business, Klobuchar continued. There are many personal reasons for allowing it to open, including family visits, especially so for families dealing with illness.
“We had numerous people who were dying in Minnesota, and they had Canadian relatives and they couldn't come and see them,” she said.
In a Wednesday statement, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said the announcement comes too late, and reopening the border is still more than a month away, something he thinks is unnecessary.
“While this shift in policy unfortunately includes more needless delays, it is a positive and long overdue step toward ending the unnecessary restrictions that have caused real pain to our communities and citizens on both sides of the border as well as our retail and tourism businesses that rely on Canadian travelers,” Burgum said. “We will continue to press the Biden administration – as we have done repeatedly these past several months with our fellow border states and provinces — to lift these restrictions as soon as possible and resume normal travel with Canada, our closest friend, ally and trading partner.”
For Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Greater Grand Forks Chamber, the announcement represents the last step in fully reopening the region, which began with the return of large events. Wilfahrt said he is confident the Grand Forks business community can handle an influx of visitors, despite the challenges in hiring that most businesses face.
“This is that last piece of the puzzle of the reopening, and Grand Forks is really looking forward to the Canadians being back down here,” Wilfahrt said.
Simon Resch, owner of the Duty Free Shop in Emerson, Manitoba, said the effects of the closure have been “unfathomable,” and that he was elated at learning the border would reopen. Resch lost his second summer of business, after being hopeful he would be able to capture a portion of it when Canada allowed vaccinated Americans to cross the border in early August.
He’s also concerned about testing requirements at the border, which are required when travelers decide to either visit or return to Canada. Locally, if access to the required tests is inadequate, that could put a damper on some Canadian’s desire to head south.
Still, he said the announcement is great news and brings about a time when people can contemplate a return to normal.
"(I’m) overwhelmingly happy with the announcement and with the knowledge that soon we’ll be with friends again,” Resch said. “Soon we’ll be back to business again, and we just can’t wait to see everyone again.”
In a Wednesday afternoon statement, U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said: “This announcement is long overdue and welcome news for the thousands of North Dakotans and small businesses who rely on trade across our northern border. I have repeatedly shared with the Biden administration why the border closure is devastating for North Dakotans, and I will continue to work with Gov. Burgum and Sens. Hoeven and Cramer to make sure these restrictions are fully lifted.”