Canadians Return to The North Country Under Relaxed Travel Rules, But Many Are Just Passing Through
Canadian visitors are back in the North Country for the first time in more than 18 months, but it may be longer still before their economic impact returns.
Standing on Lake Street in Rouses Point, there is a nearly constant rumbling of semi-trucks passing through town.
The small town in the far northeastern corner of New York State is defined by a picturesque waterfront downtown, a looming bridge across Lake Champlain to Vermont, and a border crossing with Canada.
On the first morning of mutually resumed travel between the two countries, that checkpoint had a line of southbound cars even before the sun came up.
“I came in at quarter to six to open for 6 o’clock and I could see lights at the border, all the way back as far as the eye could see,” said Kat, who works as a server in Rouses Point and asked that her last name not be used.
Kat works at a diner on the edge of town within eyesight of the border checkpoint. She said
Canadians used to be a big part of their customer base.
“Very prominent. Yeah, they were probably like half of our business,” she recalled.
Despite that early crowd at the border, halfway through the morning shift the diner still hadn’t seen any Canadian customers.
Across the street next door to an auto garage, Cy Wolfman also hadn’t yet seen any cross-border travelers at his business.
Wolfman, a dual US-Canadian citizen, runs a small freight service called Q-OPS, short for Quebec Online Parcel Service, which helps Canadians receive online orders that will not ship to Canada.
He opened the shop just a few months before the pandemic began with what he describes as 99% Canadian customers. The closure has been devastating to businesses.
“We’ve been virtually destroyed by it,” Wolfman said. “We saw our revenue drop from hundreds of dollars a day to five dollars.”
Border towns like Rouses Point rely on easy access for Canadians, who used to make near-daily crossings for mundane activities like shopping and gassing up their cars.
Wolfman thinks it could take several years before that becomes common again, in part due to added friction at the border from health precautions.
“People are afraid, they’ve changed their habits,” he said. “Things might change once the requirement for a COVID test is not there.”
Before returning home, Canadians have to get a molecular COVID-19 test, such as a PCR, which can cost up to $200 and be complicated by delayed results.
U.S. policymakers, including North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, are now lobbying for the restrictions to be dropped.
Some in the region now worry the pandemic will permanently alter border communities. Wolfman had hoped to turn Q-OPS into a family operation, but his son moved away after deciding Rouses Point was not viable in the world of COVID-19.
However, not everyone agrees. Norman Lague and his wife Sonya own Lakeside Coffee, a café and coffee roaster in town.
Like many storefronts in Rouses Point, Lakeside Coffee was dark on the Monday morning of the border closure. It was set to open the following day.
At a recent Chamber of Commerce event, Lague painted a much more optimistic picture. Although his café heavily catered to Canadian patrons, he said the local community turned out to support the coffee shop during the months of the border closure.
He also noted that coffee sales to regional businesses have been strong.
“Our coffee like this has been doing outstanding,” he said gesturing to a back of roasted beans ready for brewing. “We continue to diversify that product market.”
After a few hours in Rouses Point, there was still no sign of Canadians. One resident suggested trying the next border crossing over, in the town of Champlain. There U.S. Interstate 87 becomes Autoroute 15, the roadway linking Montreal with New York City.
One-mile south of the international boundary, at a McDonalds adjacent to an off-ramp interchange, the parking lot is full of Quebec license plates.
A steady stream of cars heading south pulls into the parking lot. There are noticeable similarities even to a casual observer. Many are vans or other larger vehicles, several have bike racks, and most are loaded with groups of silver-haired Quebecers.
When asked about their destination, every car had the same answer: Florida.
“It’s exceptional this year. I usually leave by mid-October,” says Marc Brisevois, chuckling in the bright fall sun.
Standing proudly beside a bright orange motorcycle, the resident of Greenfield Park, Quebec checks his black leather saddlebags ahead of the day’s ride.
Every year Brisevois rides from Quebec to Tampa, Flordia for a two-week visit with his son. 2020 was the first time in 11 years he was not able to make the trip. This year the border reopened just in time to beat the winter.
Brisevois crossed at Rouses Point and said he was the only one in line and that the process could not have been easier.
“Very easy, very easy,” he exclaimed. “I offered to show my vaccination and he says ‘ I believe you.’”
Canadians crossing into the U.S. are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but verifying that
status is left to the discretion of each customs officer. Travelers can be asked to provide proof in the form of a digital or paper vaccination record.
By contrast, anyone entering Canada is required to show proof of vaccination and present a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days old.
After almost two years trapped at home, annual snowbirds and people on longer trips like Brisevois do not appear to be deterred by Canada’s re-entry testing requirement.
Whether working-age Canadians on shorter trips will follow suit remains to be seen.
For many North Country border communities, economic recovery may depend on it.