PLATTSBURGH — In his first visit to the Plattsburgh area as U.S. Senate majority leader, Charles Schumer joined the chorus of officials calling for unilateral action at the U.S.-Canada border if a binational agreement to reopen the shared boundary is not reached soon.
“Now don’t get me wrong, my top priority would be a bilateral agreement with Canada so we can flow both ways,” Schumer said at the Plattsburgh Boat Basin Marina, where dozens of stored sailboats labeled with “Montreal” or “Quebec” were parked near the press conference Tuesday.
“But if Canada is still intransigent on that, we should do what we can do and do this on our own.”
In the spring, Schumer called for both countries to work together on a plan for reopening the border, closed to nonessential travel since March 21, 2020. He later supported an expansion of what defines an essential traveler who is exempt from the restrictions.
On Tuesday, he noted his previous advocacy for reopening the border, including a letter sent to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. He has also had phone calls with Mayorkas and Canadian Ambassador Kirsten Hillman and sent messages to the Canadian government “as far up as Mr. Trudeau.”
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), who co-chairs the House Northern Border Caucus, wrote to the Biden administration to call for for unilateral action in June, with immediate moves to include allowing those with family, property or business dealings in the U.S. to cross.
The only progress on Canada’s end so far has been the lifting of a two-week quarantine requirement for vaccinated Canadians returning to the country that went into effect Monday.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said plans to fully reopen the border will be announced in the coming weeks, the Associated Press reported.
ON OUR OWN
If an agreement is not reached before July 21, when the current restrictions are set to expire, Schumer said the U.S. must “1) expand the definition of essential travel to include vaccinated Canadians with family, property, educational, medical or business interest and 2) unilaterally open the northern border to those vaccinated Canadians,” according to a press release.
These moves are “all the more current” as the quarantine requirements that might have inhibited people from coming to the U.S. have now been lifted for vaccinated Canadians, he added.
“I’d like us to move immediately but maybe this will put pressure on Canada to open it both ways, let’s hope.”
Schumer shared estimates that two million Canadian travelers contributed hundreds of millions to the North Country economy in 2019, while in 2020 cross-border car traffic was down by 98 percent at both the Champlain and Rouses Point ports of entry.
He pointed to vaccinations in New York State and across the country that have been followed by declines in case numbers.
“So it’s clear that an agreement can and should be reached to accommodate the border communities without compromising the fight against COVID-19," Schumer said.
"But the Canadian government continues to lack urgency as this situation requires, so if we can’t get the Canadians to budge, we should do it on our own.”
'JUST UP THERE'
Owners and managers of the Plattsburgh Boat Basin Marina, Gilbert Brook Marina, Monty's Bay Marina, Treadwell Bay Marina & Resort and Westport Marina were present for a short roundtable discussion with Schumer and North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas inside the Naked Turtle restaurant.
They shared with the senator that the vast majority of people who store their boats with them are Canadian, and opined that it was illogical not to allow property owners to cross.
Douglas pointed out that it is the wealthiest people who can afford to take advantage of the rule allowing Canadians to fly into the U.S. while they cannot cross the border by car.
During the press conference, he added that the boats grounded at the Plattsburgh Boat Basin tell the story.
“Now translate that to campgrounds and restaurants and all kinds of other businesses who typically would be depending on our Canadian visitors who are just up there,” he said.
“We can almost see them but we can’t get there and they can’t get here and we’re past the point where that’s necessary. We’re past the point where we shouldn’t be starting to move things forward, at least on a step by step basis.”
'GET PEOPLE LISTENING'
Plattsburgh Boat Basin Marina owner Art Spiegel expressed appreciation both to fellow marina owners who came to advocate for reopening the border and to Schumer for understanding the issue.
Both State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) and State Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake) agreed that while bilateral action was preferable, the time had come for unilateral moves.
Stec shared stories of people with new grandchildren they have not been able to meet as they live on opposite sides of the border.
“The politeness and the patience has been nice and warranted, but I think you’re (Schumer) 100% right that now’s the time to move forward, if we need to, unilaterally, given where we are with the virus and given where we are with the vaccination program.”
Jones said officials, including himself, had not gotten anywhere following requests for a phased approach to reopening.
“When you have the majority leader of the United States Senate here in Plattsburgh, N.Y., calling for this, this will get people listening.”
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