WASHINGTON — Anticipation turned to elation Monday as fully vaccinated Canadians visited loved ones, vacation properties and popular American shopping haunts after the United States finally eased southbound travel restrictions along the world's longest unmilitarized land border.
Shortly after midnight Sunday night, Customs and Border Protection agents began letting fully vaccinated vacationers, visitors and day-trippers drive into the U.S. for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
"I am excited. I am nervous. I am terrified. It's everything. The anxiety is all there," said Patricia Fountain, a resident of Niagara Falls, Ont., who hasn't seen her boyfriend, who lives in the U.S., in person since May of last year.
Fountain, who entered the U.S. Monday via the Rainbow Bridge, said the pair plan to spend some quality time "sitting and cuddling and watching movies" after 17 months of phone calls and video chats.
"I just hope everybody gets over this and we go back to normal," she said. "I would like to get some normalcy back in my life."
That's precisely what snowbird Don Livingstone had in mind when he walked across the bridge Monday in order to catch a flight to Punta Gorda, Fla., where he had a tee time waiting.
"I’m looking forward to a great winter. We’re going to golf every day," said Livingstone, 80, from Burlington, Ont.
"As long as you have your health and you can afford it, why not?"
Wait times to enter the U.S. ran the gamut in the early hours of the morning Monday, with some waiting two or three hours at traditionally busy crossings like the Peace Bridge in Buffalo or St-Bernard-de-Lacolle in Quebec before the backlogs cleared at midday.
In the town of Coutts, Alta., however, the wait stretched to four hours just before noon local time, levelling off at just over three hours by mid-afternoon.
Mayor Jim Willett said vehicles and RVs began showing up as early as Friday, tripling the population of a town that's usually home to fewer than 300 people.
"Talking to people who have lived here all their lives, they’ve never seen a lineup this long before," Willett said.
In Plattsburgh, N.Y., an hour's drive south of Montreal, Quebec licence plates were spotted in the parking lot of the Champlain Centre mall — a destination so dependent on cross-border traffic that it uses the Canadian spelling of its name on all its marketing material and signage.
The mall's website even included a special section for its foreign customers, festooned with Maple Leaf flags and boasting of new retail outlets that opened during the pandemic and special savings for anyone showing proof of Canadian residency.
"A great deal of the Plattsburgh economy is supported by Canadian visitors," said Charles Loscalzo, the manager of Bookburgh Books. He estimated that roughly half of his customers in past years were from north of the border.
Loscalzo called the latest travel developments "positive steps," but admitted he's nervous about Canada's requirement that anyone entering or re-entering the country must show proof of a negative PCR test, along with their vaccination cards.
The test, also known as a molecular test, can cost anywhere from C$150 to $300 and must be taken within 72 hours of arriving at a northbound border crossing. The U.S. requires the same of air travellers, but allows them to submit the cheaper, rapid test widely available at drugstores. It waived the rule for people crossing by land.
Canada's requirement is now squarely in the sights of the business leaders, activists and U.S. lawmakers who have been calling for months for the borders to reopen. Requiring a family of four to shell out an extra $1,000 for a "redundant" test is unnecessary, they say.
"People don't want to be constrained anymore," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York congressman and one of the most vocal critics of the restrictions.
"Remove the redundant testing. And let's really celebrate this opening, so that we can realize the full potential of the United States and Canada getting back to its friendship, getting back to its binational relationship in an economic way, but also in a life quality way."
Drew Dilkens, the mayor of the border city of Windsor, Ont., pointed out that Canada allows visitors who plan to return from the U.S. within 72 hours to get their re-entry test done before they leave.
That would include the "thousands" of Canadian football fans who routinely travel to Detroit, Buffalo and other NFL cities to watch a game in person before heading home at the end of the night.
"The current system would allow someone to take a PCR test in Canada, cross into Detroit to cheer on the Lions with 65,000 other fans in the stadium, and then return to Canada using the test they took before leaving," Dilkens said.
"How is that test of any use to anyone about the nature of one's activities and the risks that they were exposed to? I think we can all agree it's not."
Floyd Jorgenson, of Mervin, Sask., said he accompanied his parents on a flight to Phoenix to get them settled at their Arizona vacation property, but is now wondering whether he'll be allowed back into Canada when he returns home Friday.
The clinic where he inquired about getting a PCR test said it would take upwards of seven to 10 days to get the results, he said.
"They said, 'Well, we're so backed up, it's a week, week-and-a-half delayed before you get the results,'" Jorgenson said. "And I go, 'Well, that doesn't really work very good for me.'"
He said he'll keep trying, but in the end may have to plead his case with customs officials: "I won't even have my results, so I'm not sure — but I know I have a ticket, so I'm getting on the plane."
The new rules took effect on the same day as the U.S. began requiring foreign nationals arriving by air to be fully vaccinated and tested before boarding their flights. Unvaccinated Americans are allowed to fly, but must be tested within 24 hours of departure.
The U.S. has also lifted a travel ban on a number of countries that's been in place from the outset, including China, India, Ireland, Iran, South Africa, Brazil and the 26 European nations without border controls, known as the Schengen group.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates that inbound international travel produced $239 billion in export income in 2019 and directly supported 1.2 million American jobs. The pandemic has cost the U.S. some $300 billion in foregone export income and more than a million jobs, with travel levels not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024 at the earliest, the association estimates.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021.
— With files from Noushin Ziafati in Niagara Falls, Morgan Lowrie in Plattsburgh and Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Livingstone drove across the Peace Bridge.