PLATTSBURGH — The news that the U.S.-Canada border would remain closed to non-essential travel for yet another month was met with disappointment and criticism from local officials.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that the two countries had agreed the restrictions — which were implemented March 21 in response to COVID-19 — would continue until July 21.
"We fully expected another 30-day extension, but hoped there would be an accompanying commitment to develop potential phases for reopening linked to facts and performance rather than fear and feelings," North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said in a statement.
"It is an act of bi-national economic and social mismanagement of the world's most important social and economic partnership to again act so simplistically without providing any conceptual pathway forward."
Douglas said the chamber would continue its advocacy in both countries' capitals "for the identification of interim steps that can potentially be agreed to prior to July 21, including 'a thoughtful joint policy of metrics and step by step progress that will be considered.'"
Though the fact that commercial shipping between the U.S. and Canada continues uninterrupted is welcome, "it misses how integrated we are economically," Douglas continued.
"Canada-U.S. business is not merely about the movement of boxes but about relationships, meetings, site and sales visits, and face-to-face partnering.
"It is not a fact to say the economic connections are unaffected because they are more and more affected each passing week. And the continued tearing of the special social fabric that binds our two peoples is also, as we have said, profoundly sad and very damaging."
Though the chamber has never said the border restrictions are not understandable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is past time that an agreed-upon framework for a path forward be put in place, Douglas said.
"That remains missing and that is unacceptable. An immediate bi-national strategic dialogue is called for."
North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) told the Press-Republican that she has heard concerns regarding the extended border closure from the business community, in particular tourism, as well as local elected officials who represent municipalities with Canadian seasonal residents.
In a conversation with acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf Friday, she proposed potentially loosening border restrictions to allow seasonal residents to go to their homes on the other side of the border and discussed the issue of L-1A visas, through which U.S. companies transfer or foreign companies send executives and managers into the U.S.
Stefanik also spoke with Wolf about the potential for screening procedures at the border "as a way to ensure that it's safe for public health purposes."
Additionally, the congresswoman and fellow House Northern Border Caucus Co-chair Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Niagara Falls/Buffalo) sent a letter to Wolf and Canadian Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair to press for more clarity on how border-related decisions are made as well as "nuanced and particularized guidance" for a path forward.
Stefanik said she had not expected the guidance to be included in this latest announcement, noting continued work with Higgins and coordination with Wolf's office to gather data on seasonal homes owned by Canadians across the northern border.
"This is not just a U.S. decision; the Canadians have to agree as well," Stefanik said.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake), the honorary co-chair of the Quebec-New York Corridor Coalition, said the continued closure would impact both the regional economy and residents' everyday lives, and remarked on the chamber's decades-long dedication to fostering the relationship between the North Country and Quebec.
"The continuation of this directive will undoubtedly have long-lasting consequences on both countries’ tourism industry, and on our economies as a whole," he said in a statement.
"Further, as a region with strong international ties, there is a plethora of residents with family members who live in the opposite country. While it is encouraging that immediate family members can now cross, most cannot afford to be quarantined for 14 days."
Though disappointed by the announcement, Jones said he would continue to work with federal partners on addressing public health concerns regarding non-essential travel while ensuring economies could move forward and families could reunite.
According to conservative chamber estimates, the annual direct economic impact of cross-border commerce, investment and activity in Clinton County exceeds $2 billion, Douglas said.
And in a good year, Canadian visitors spend more than $375 million in the county, which translates to $10 million in sales tax revenues, the county's primary source of income.
"The planned promotion of staycations from our surrounding region on this side of the border can be helpful, as can the maximization of local spending by our area residents," Douglas added.
"This cannot fully replace the enormous impact of Canadian visitation, however."
Clinton County Legislature Chair Mark Henry (R-Area 3) noted that the continued restrictions on nonessential travel will impact the the county's tourism as well as Plattsburgh International Airport.
The county expects its second installment of sales tax to come out soon. He expects those numbers to be "way down."
"I hope I'm wrong, I hope some of my concerns are mitigated by Phase 3 of reopening."
Local governments have been rocked by huge declines in sales tax revenue throughout the pandemic, and New York State has yet to announce cuts to state aid.
Stefanik said she is optimistic that, in July, Congress will pass a bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill that will provide "significant funding for state and county and local governments."
She is hopeful that funding will look similar to the State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition (SMART) Act, legislation she has co-sponsored that would establish a $500 billion community stabilization fund to provide relief for all states, counties and communities.
The congresswoman added that a first step was making sure already-sent federal aid was being allocated.
She and two other GOP congressmembers sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday calling on him to disburse $2.5 billion in Federal Medical Assistance Percentage funding — federal Medicaid reimbursement — to county governments, which included a temporary 6.2 percent increase provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Cuomo's administration announced Tuesday that it will soon distribute $1 billion of the funding.
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