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Higgins, Niagara Falls leaders urge Washington to end Canadian border closure

Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, October 2021
Michael Mroziak WBFO News
A view of Rainbow Bridge and Niagara Falls, Ont., from Niagara Falls, NY

Congressman Brian Higgins and Niagara Falls government and business leaders say the need to reopen the US border to Canadians is urgent. It will remain closed to non-essential travel during the holiday weekend, and local business advocates say commerce in the Cataract City continues to struggle.

While US citizens were set to mark Columbus Day or Indigenous Persons Day on Monday, October 11, Canadians were preparing for their Thanksgiving holiday the same day.

But once again, whether the hope was for visiting or for some recreational shopping or sightseeing, friends and loved ones separated by the international crossing would face yet another holiday apart.

“Even beyond tourism, it is really a part of the local economy, both Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York. We have families and friends on both sides of this river,” said Niagara Falls mayor Robert Restaino. “And in these off-peak months, it’s that commerce that drives the local economy. Without that, we struggle.”

The US-Canada border was closed to non-essential traffic in March 2020 as the COVID pandemic was surging. In August of this year, the Canadian government began allowing fully vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents into Canada, provided they take a COVID test and prove negative within 72 hours of entry. The US, however, has continued to extend its ban on non-essential Canadian road travelers on a month-to-month basis.

“The US-Canadian border should have been open six months ago, for the fully vaccinated, regardless of the percentage of population,” said Congressman Brian Higgins, whose district includes Niagara Falls. “Those people who are fully vaccinated have strong protection against getting seriously ill, hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. And therefore that needs to be recognized.”

Also needing to be recognized in Washington, D.C., Niagara Falls business leaders say, is the continuing impact the extended closure is having on the local economy. According to the US Travel Association, the US economy is losing nearly $440 million a month.

Local officials say Niagara Falls sales tax receipts were down 26 percent in 2020, from one year before. This year, they’re still down about 10 percent.

“It's hard to quantify because they're all over the board,” said Kory Schuler, CEO of the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce. “We've had things like the outlet mall (Fashion Outlets of Niagara) reporting pretty steady gains. Same with the hotels around the region, it's where you get into the smaller businesses that the numbers seem a little bit inflated, because of the number of businesses that have closed, so there's less people sharing that pie, if you will.”

The existing closure was scheduled to expire on October 21. Higgins says the White House and its COVID-19 Task Force have failed to provide any rationale for prolonging the border shutdown.

“We have 56 percent of Americans adults fully vaccinated. Seventy-two percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated,” Higgins said. “It all points to the same conclusion. If you follow the science and follow the data, if you follow the facts, open the border.”

Schuler says the region was still welcoming some sales tax income from the later portion of the tourist season. But if the border restrictions are extended again, there are fears it could impact the upcoming holiday shopping season.

“We all know what weather is like in Western New York. You're not going to have a large contingent of people traveling here. I think that's where you're really going to see the effects,” Schuler said. “And if the border remains closed into November and December, I think especially the smaller businesses are really going to have an economic meltdown.”

Mayor Restaino, meanwhile, said he wants to remain optimistic but that becomes harder as time passes.

“We are now into our 20th month and it's hard to maintain optimism when we just don't know where the goalposts are,” he said. “So I'm going to remain optimistic on behalf of our community. But I am sort of waiting for that bright line to let me know that we're, you know, the horizon’s there and we can see it. It's just unfortunate that we are going to be approaching the holiday shopping season with all this uncertainty again.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.