ROUSES POINT — Wednesday's announcement that the United States would extend its border restrictions on southbound travel by another 30 days left Rouses Point Village Mayor Jedidiah Thone flabbergasted.
The news came days after Canada revealed it would start letting fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents utilize its land crossings on Aug. 9.
"What we’re currently doing is shooting ourselves in the foot," Thone said of the United States government. "That’s what this is. If we don’t open to Canadians, but they open to us, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
"That means Canada is going to get our tourism and we will get nothing."
The effective closure to nonessential travel into the United States was set to expire Wednesday, but the Department of Homeland Security issued a notice declaring it would remain in effect through Aug. 21.
Officials, families, small businesses and property owners who had been advocating for a reopening of the border saw Canada's announcement that fully vaccinated Americans would be able to head north early next month as a step in the right direction.
Indeed, the North Country Chamber of Commerce had hoped the delay of a border announcement by the United States foretold something besides yet another extension of the restrictions, Chamber President Garry Douglas said.
"That there would be reference to some consideration of further steps at a sooner point, like Aug. 9 to match the Canadian timetable," he said.
"This is deeply disappointing, not only because it leaves no opportunity to save part of the summer season for Canadian travel here — though by the way they can continue to fly here but just can't drive their car — but because it stalls the access by Canadians to family, property, businesses and airports while Canada is opening the way for such needed access the other way."
'MISSING A LOT'
Douglas, who said the latest 30-day extension was like a broken record, harkened back to when the hope was that interim progress by the United States would encourage reciprocal steps by Canada.
"Now, if there were a U.S.-Canadian Olympics with an event called border, Canada would be racing toward the gold while the U.S. can't get itself off the starting block."
Thone felt similarly, saying "good for Canada."
"We’ve been trying to get them to open and suddenly when they open, we don’t? That's dumb. Why is Canada put in the situation where they basically unilaterally opened their borders for Americans, but we keep it closed to Canadians? That’s absolutely flabbergasting to me."
The Village of Rouses Point is a lake community situated minutes from Canada and on the banks of Lake Champlain.
“The marinas play a really heavy role," Thone said of its economy. "When it comes to one of the biggest marinas in the village, 60% to 70% of the boats are Canadian. That’s a few hundreds boats that would be here every weekend to go sailing. Now, we don’t have the business coming down with the Canadians; they’re not buying food at our restaurants, shopping downtown and our marinas stay empty."
The village mayor noted fewer biking groups riding through and missing faces at the village's annual Fourth of July celebration.
"We’re missing out on a lot with the border being closed."
As a fellow lakeside tourist community, Plattsburgh City Mayor Christopher Rosenquest said the city relied heavily on tourism dollars of its own.
"Sales tax, our biggest economic indicator of growth and local spending, has been holding strong and even exceeding our budgetary expectations."
But the mayor feared those figures could be impacted by unilateral Canadian travel.
"With the Canadian border now open to U.S. travelers, but not reciprocated, locals have more options for spending their dollars in Canada, thus taking what spending they were doing at home elsewhere. With the U.S. border closed to travel, it's beyond frustrating knowing that those dollars could end up going elsewhere without the ability to offset that with Canadians who want to come and spend their money here."
The Plattsburgh City Beach, one of the longest freshwater beaches in the U.S., is typically a hot spot for visiting Canadians.
"Coming into the 2021 beach season, it was difficult to understand what it was going to look like and how successful it was going to be with a closed border," Mayor Rosenquest said. "We weren't even sure if we would be able to open."
As suspected, traffic to the beach was down substantially, he said.
"As much as our beach is an asset for our residents and regional neighbors, we rely heavily on our Canadian customers to help boost that city asset. We just haven't seen Canadian traffic, but we also expected that to be the case with a closed border."
Douglas thanked leaders including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) and State Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake) for their continued advocacy.
"While deeply discouraging," Douglas said, "we will remain active and aggressive in hopes of achieving progress sooner than the new date of Aug. 21."
Stefanik, who co-chairs the House Northern Border Caucus, decried the decision as a failure by President Joe Biden.
“This failure of the Biden administration to reopen our northern border is devastating to North Country families, businesses and communities who were hopeful that the United States would reciprocate on Canada’s decision to restore travel across the border," she said in a statement. Stefanik pushed for legislative action, pointing to a bill she introduced last month that would require the Department of Homeland Security to expand the categories of permitted travel and begin implementing a plan for reopening the border.
Schumer similarly noted the United States' failure to reciprocate, saying it jeopardized "an already tenuous recovery for thousands of businesses, families and communities across Upstate New York."
"It is critical for the United States to level the playing field and create a uniform system, following the science and data, to safely — and finally — reopen the border for those vaccinated, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that happens as swiftly as possible," he said.
Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor Michael Cashman noted his ongoing push for a metrics-based system that would set transparent expectations for a safe reopening of the border.
But, 16 months later, both countries have lacked a bilateral approach, he said.
"Sadly, I am not shocked. It is infuriating. Lack of planning often compounds issues."
Cashman urged reopening the border to fully vaccinated travelers and parity in policies from both countries.
Jones, who co-chairs the Council of State Government East’s Canada-U.S. Relations Committee, said the lack of a comprehensive reopening plan leaves border communities unable to prepare for the future or have a sense of when reopening of the land crossing may happen.
"There were promising signs this month that the United States and Canada were moving toward a reopening agreement, though this decision dashes those hopes for another 30 days," he continued.
"With Canada’s recent decision to open the border to vaccinated Americans starting on Aug. 9, America should follow suit and should do so ASAP.”
State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) pointed out that, when the border was first closed in March 2020, there were no COVID vaccines, testing options were limited and there was tremendous uncertainty.
“That’s not where we stand today, thankfully. Our federal government’s decision to keep the border closed for another month doesn’t reflect the progress made against COVID and ignores the pleas of families desperate to reunite.”
Mayor Rosenquest pleaded for "quantifiable information" detailing specific metrics required for a reopened border.
"At least we could measure our success against something tangible rather than what seems to be vague data driving decisions on responsibly opening our border to travelers, business owners and families."