As the pandemic continues to sweep across the United States, Canadians are increasingly concerned about what American visitors might bring with them across the border.
Built directly on the border of Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia, the Ark of Peace is a 20-meter-high (67-foot) testament to the close ties between Canada and the United States.
The words “Let these doors never be closed” are inscribed on one side, a reminder of the nearly 8,891 km (5,525 miles) of unmilitary border that separates the two nations.
For nearly 100 years, those words were heard – until the coronavirus pandemic effectively closed the border indefinitely.
The shutdown went into effect on March 21 and has been approved by both governments. After being extended several times over the summer, the shutdown remains in effect until August 21 – although most expect the shutdown to be extended again.
“I never thought I’d be sitting here in mid-August and the border is still closed,” says Len Saunders, a double citizen who lives in Blaine.
“It just seems to go on and on with no end in sight. ”
While the border closure has had a significant economic and personal impact on the millions of people who live there or have loved ones across the border, the vast majority of Canadians want it to remain closed.
A July poll by Ipsos Reid found that eight in ten Canadians wanted the border to remain closed until at least the end of 2020.
And as the pandemic continued to spread across the United States, tensions between American drivers and Canadian residents also increased.
Although non-essential travel is prohibited, commercial drivers delivering goods and people working across the border in essential services are allowed to cross.
People with US license plates have said they have been harassed and seen their vehicles vandalized, even though they have every right to be there.
Mr Saunders, an immigration lawyer who has many clients who regularly cross the border for work, says many people are afraid.
“They are all afraid of driving their cars in the Lower Mainland because of the vandalism, the dirty air and just being treated like ‘horrible Americans’,” he told the BBC.
One of his clients, an architect licensed to practice in Canada during the shutdown, says he was told to “go home” because of his car.
Tensions are so high that British Columbia Premier John Horgan has suggested that Canadians with US license plates should take the bus or ride their bikes instead.
In the Muskoka region of Ontario, where many people have summer homes, the hostility has caught the attention of police.
Ontario provincial police said a Canadian from Huntsville filed a complaint after two men approached him about his Florida license plate.
“More recently this weekend there was a man heading for Huntsville doing gas in his vehicle, and two gentlemen walked up to him and said, ‘You’re American, go home.’ And he said, “I’m Canadian. I live here. “And they literally said, no we don’t believe you show us your passport,” Phil Harding, the mayor of neighboring Kuskoka lakes, told CP24.
“It just gets a little aggressive, and they fear for their lives a bit. ”
The strengthening of border security has also led to notable arrests.
In Grand Forks, British Columbia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police spent more than two hours chasing a man, who allegedly crossed illegally in a stolen vehicle on July 24, on a river. The “float hunt” ended where the river narrowed, when police, with the help of passers-by, were able to enter the river and escort it to shore.
Charges are pending, but anyone caught violating border restrictions can be fined up to CAD $ 750,000 ($ 566,000; £ 434,000) and six months in jail, or 1 million Canadian dollars and three years if their actions “result in a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm.”
These hefty fines aren’t just for deliberate rule breakers.
Police on Wednesday warned Americans participating in an annual float on the St Clair River near the Michigan border that even accidentally crossing the border could result in a hefty fine. In 2016, during more leisurely times, Canadian police sympathetically escorted about 1,500 floats to the U.S. side after winds blew them off course.
Still, the effects of the border closure on small towns on either side are not insignificant.
Before the coronavirus, around 300,000 people crossed the border every day, including Canadians who regularly took day trips to strike a deal at American malls or gas stations, and American tourists exploring the wonders of Niagara Falls.
Since March, non-commercial land border crossings to Canada have fallen by nearly 95%, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
“It’s going to decimate everything up there,” says Saunders.
But the economic impacts of closing the border to travelers are nothing compared to what would happen to Canada if another wave of coronavirus forces a second stop, says Ambarish Chandra, professor of economics at the University of Toronto.
“This trip has a tremendous economic impact on the communities that travelers go to,” he says.
“But given the pandemic in the United States and the number of cases there, it makes sense to restrict travel to the United States – potentially indefinitely. ”
Mr Chandra said the government should provide assistance to border towns whose economies rely heavily on foreign tourism, but remain stable with the borders closed until the pandemic is over.
“In the long run, it’s much cheaper to bail out all of Niagara Falls, Ontario than it is to shut Toronto down for another three or four weeks,” he says.
After months of shutting down most businesses, coronavirus cases in Canada are on the decline and the country is reopening its economy. Daily cases have dropped from a high of 2,760 on May 3 to a few hundred.
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Restaurants and shops have been open for at least a few weeks in most major cities, and cases so far are still on the decline.
Meanwhile, the United States is trying to get its outbreak under control, which peaked at 75,821 on July 17 and is registering around 40,000 new cases a day.
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It is these numbers that fuel many Canadians’ unease with American travelers.
“Montana is directly south of us, is currently experiencing a second peak of cases, and I am not sorry for anyone who is stopped at the border, let’s put it that way,” said Jim Willett, the mayor of Coutts. Alberta.
“I’m afraid if we opened the border too early, we might have more of a problem like what’s happening in the south. ”
His town is one of five border towns where US residents traveling to Alaska can enter Canada, since the CBSA cracked down on the so-called “Alaska loophole” in late July.
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Since Alaska does not share any border with other American states, Americans have to drive across Canada, hence the “loophole.”
After the border closed, many expressed concern that drivers were exploiting this loophole to explore some of the country’s most scenic places, such as Vancouver Island and Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise. .
In June, the RCMP issued seven tickets worth $ 1,200 ($ 906, £ 694) each to Americans who broke the rules by visiting Alberta.
“Don’t pass, come on. Go straight to Alaska, ”Premier Horgan said at a press conference in July.
Complaints about the loophole and lack of enforcement led to the crackdown.
At the end of July, border officials announced that travelers to Alaska had only limited entry points, had to take the most direct route to their destination, and would have to display labels in their vehicle identifying them as American drivers traveling to the northern state.
They are also limited to a “reasonable period of stay” in Canada, and prohibited from visiting national parks, recreation sites and other tourist destinations, with rule breakers facing heavy penalties.
Since the stricter rules were enacted, Mr Willett says he is not “too concerned” with traffic crossing the border.
« [We] get a good number of people through at all hours of the day and night. Most of them are quite cooperative, ”he says.