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Schumer pushes reopening the U.S.-Canada border

David Sommerstein / NCPR

New York U.S. Senator Charles Schumer made his first visit to St. Lawrence County as Majority Leader Wednesday. The Democrat called on the Biden Administration to hammer out a concrete plan with Canada for reopening the border.

At Massena’s airport, Schumer flew in on a chartered plane, did some elbow bumps by a blue maintenance hanga, and took the podium.

"So the good news," he said, "is that New York’s really starting to reopen all across the way. Lots of people are getting vaccines."

The bad news? The U.S. and Canada seem no closer to reopening the border to non-essential traffic, fourteen months after it closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"They haven’t come up with a plan! So every month, everyone’s waiting and waiting and waiting and you don’t hear much," Schumer said.

In 2019, 2.3 million Canadians crossed at the three ports of entry on the St. Lawrence River in Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg and Massena, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, according to Schumer.

The North Country relies heavily on Canada, for business and tourism, but also for daily life. Massena economic developer Jim Murphy said a woman just told him her veterinarian is in Canada.

"My vet is in Cornwall. I can’t get my cat taken care of because that’s where we go," he said. "People go across to go to dinner both ways. All my life it has been open easy access on either side."

Schumer called on the State and Homeland Security departments to work with Canada to “get clarity” on a plan to reopen the border safely, and it should start immediately with people who are vaccinated.

"The bottom line is very simple. If you have a vaccine, you should be allowed to go across the border."

Senator Chuck Schumer stands at a podium. He is wearing glasses, has grey hair, and is wearing a black coat and tan pants. There are two men wearing face masks and suits in the background behind him.
Credit David Sommerstein / NCPR
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer talks about opening the U.S.-Canada border at the Massena airport Wednesday.

Schumer’s biggest applause line at the small gathering was when he called on both countries to stop fining boaters on the St. Lawrence for drifting across the international line, a big problem last summer.

"You get on a boat in Massena, you go across the Canadian border, but you’re still on the St. Lawrence River, what’s the difference?" Schumer said. "As long as you’re not docking on the other side, why are they doing this?"

The reality, however, is that Schumer’s wishes could be months off from coming true. Ontario and Quebec are closer to full lockdowns than reopenings. Canada’s vaccine rollout is slow. And Ottawa has shown little appetite for change the border restrictions anytime soon.

"The Senator is correct. There needs to be a dialogue. To not even have that discussion, even if you don’t have an intention of doing it anytime soon is foolhardy," said Corey Fram, tourism director with the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council.

He said the two countries could start with baby steps like harmonizing health screenings and quarantine rules.

"There are little ways that we can start to chip away at this, instead of asking to open up the floodgates," Fram said.

Fram says he’s feeling bullish about the upcoming tourism season, with pent-up travel demand in the US and millions of vaccines in arms.

Getting Canadians to come too? Fingers crossed.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.
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