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Northland ready to accept Canadian neighbors as border restrictions are lifted

Vaccinated Canadians have been able to travel to the United States for months by air, and vaccinated Americans regained their ability to travel across the border into Canada for nonessential travel in August.

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Vehicles lined up on Minnesota Highway 11 for over 2 miles to cross the Canadian border in International Falls on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Contributed / Tricia Heibel

Beginning next month, Minnesotans will be seeing Ontario license plates once again as border restrictions will be eased to allow vaccinated Canadians to travel across the border.

The announcement comes after northern Minnesota businesses for months struggled without regular traffic from Canadian visitors. Vaccinated Canadians have been able to travel to the United States for months by air and vaccinated Americans regained their ability to travel across the border into Canada for nonessential travel in August.

But federal health officials had not yet cleared vaccinated Canadian and Mexican nationals to cross the land border until this week. The travel limits went into effect in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

When asked why Canadians have not been able to travel by land, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that’s the billion-dollar question.

“I’ve been pushing for this for months. I wish it had happened before, but I’m certainly glad it is happening now,” she said. “This is the game-changer we needed for consistency in tourism in the Northland because while some of our tourism has been strong, we know it’s been cyclical and there have been issues for certain types of hotels, and this is really going to help on that front.”

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Klobuchar said the most immediate impact will be families finally being able to see each other and gather for Christmas and other holidays.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we got from just regular Minnesotans who maybe had a grandmother who was dying or someone was sick and they wanted to have their Canadian relatives visit and they couldn’t,” she said. “So this is going to allow so many friends, families and neighbors to easily cross the border to see their loved ones.”

International Falls Mayor Harley Droba said the lifting of this restriction will allow his city to get 6,000 of its neighbors back.

“In International Falls we have a population of about 6,000 and Fort Francis has a population of about 6,000, and we share so many services, so essentially having the border closed for as long as it has been, it has felt like we’ve lost half of our population in our community,” he said.

Droba said Canadians come to the U.S. to buy housing supplies, lumber and building materials, which is a huge business in the International Falls community. Droba said his city’s two grocery stores have been struggling without Canadians coming over and spending their money.

“Our two communities are intertwined,” Droba said. “So it is very exciting to have them coming back. It’s been a huge loss for us not having them in our community for the last year and a half.”

Adam Fulton, Duluth's deputy director of planning and economic development, said it’s too soon to know exactly how much of an impact the closure of the Canadian border has had on the city, but it will be great to have them back.

“We have always prioritized and really considered our relationship with Thunder Bay as one that’s very important,” Fulton said. “We recognize that Duluth is a strong tourist destination for those in Thunder Bay. Those residents haven’t even had a chance to explore and use our new Lakewalk.”

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One of the communities hit the hardest is Grand Portage.

“It has impacted Grand Portage in a significant way being that it is right on the U.S.-Canada border,” said Kjersti Vick, Visit Cook County marketing and public relations director. “They have seen significantly less traffic into the casino area as well as the other sites at Grand Portage, which was one of the most impacted by the closure.”

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said when she heard the news, it was a sigh of relief.

“I’m eager to make sure that our relatives at Grand Portage are able to be in a better spot with the reopening of the border,” she said.

Another community that has been greatly impacted by the border closures is the Northwest Angle. Paul Colson, owner and operator of Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort, said it is welcome news.

“I’m excited that we’re finally going to get some Canadian business,” Colson said.

The Northwest Angle is in a unique geographic situation as a part of Minnesota in which residents must drive through Canada to get to the rest of the state or use an ice bridge in the winter.

To get into Canada, a U.S. citizen must be fully vaccinated and show proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entering the country. Colson said this has become a major issue and it's been getting harder and harder to get PCR tests and test results back in time.

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When the U.S. border opens in November, proof of negative test will not be required for Canadians, just proof of vaccination.

“I hope Canada decides to move in the same direction,” Colson said. “It would be nice to have the laws be the same both ways.”

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