GRAND FORKS — The days are dwindling until travel restrictions at land crossings along the U.S.-Canada border are set to expire. Is there light at the end of the tunnel for travelers?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month extended the cross-border ban on nonessential travel until July 21. But the question remains: What will actually happen when that day arrives, given rising vaccination rates in Canada? Largely gone are burdensome restrictions of the past, including a two-week hotel stay for land-crossers and an expensive three-day hotel stay for citizens and permanent residents entering the country by air. For fully vaccinated Canadians, the government relaxed those restrictions earlier this week.

The gathering headwinds have some wondering if there is enough momentum to end the restriction on nonessential travel altogether. The border between the U.S. and Canada has been closed since March 21, 2020. The closures have been re-upped every 30 days since then.

Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, July 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Marlene Awaad
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, July 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Marlene Awaad

“I was not planning for this a month ago, but it looks like we might be able to capture a portion of the summer season, at least in terms of international travel,” said Simon Resch, owner of the Emerson duty-free shop on the Canada side of the Pembina border crossing, north of Grand Forks. “Fingers crossed, we might be getting back to it soon."

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Resch said his business has missed out on millions of dollars in sales, though even being open for a portion of the summer would allow him to recapture some of that.

Resch is a board member of the Frontier Duty Free Association in Canada, an industry trade group representing the country’s land border duty-free shops. He said his organization was asked to attend a “last-minute meeting” with a Canadian government official late last week, who indicated to the group’s executive director that the border could open to Canadians traveling to the U.S by mid-July, and that Americans could be allowed to head north by mid-August.

Resch said local news reports over the weekend did not follow through with what the government official told the trade group. However, a July 5 report from the Associated Press noted that Trudeau, speaking at a news conference that day, said he is hopeful the country will take new steps toward reopening the border in the coming weeks.

Ariel Delouya, the Canadian consul general in Minneapolis, said talks between the two governments are ongoing. In an interview this week with the Grand Forks Herald, Delouya stressed patience, and said an announcement would be forthcoming closer to July 21, though he didn’t know if that meant extending the travel ban another month, rescinding portions of the ban or repealing it altogether.

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Delouya also noted that Canada did not unilaterally impose a travel restriction, but did so jointly with the United States.

Still, given how vaccinations have proceeded in Canada, Delouya said he wouldn’t be surprised if measures are relaxed in August for vaccinated travelers in both directions.

“The expectation is that we're gradually moving toward a reopening of the border on both sides,” Delouya said.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., said she is hopeful both governments will announce an end to the 17-months-long border closure. Minnesotans along the border, she said, especially those at the Northwest Angle, have waited long enough for a resolution.

“The punitive border restrictions affect not just American citizens, but also Canadians living near the border. Inaction and indifference by our two governments are no longer options,” Fischbach said in a statement emailed to the Herald.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said North Dakotans did well fighting the pandemic and reopening the state’s economy. Hoeven said there is a strong desire to reopen the border, and he raised the issue with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting last month.

“The U.S.-Canada border should be safely re-opened as soon as possible, as it would benefit both nations, alleviate supply chain disruptions and help small businesses in border communities in both North Dakota and Canada,” Hoeven said.

In May, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chaired a meeting between 10 U.S. senators and 14 Canadian parliamentarians regarding a number of topics, including trade and security. At that meeting, she encouraged swift action be taken to help communities impacted by the travel restrictions.

"It is time to get cross-border travel back to normal,” Klobuchar said.

Resch remains optimistic the situation could change given the vaccination efforts in Canada, combined with pent-up demand to travel by people on both sides of the border. According to the provincial government website, there have been more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine administered in Manitoba. Of those, 75% have had at least one dose, and nearly 53% have had two.

“We also are seeing from the U.S. side a desire to resume international travel,” Resch said. “To be perfectly honest, I cannot confirm this in any way right now, but I think July 21, I'm expecting very significant movement and progress.”