DULUTH – As news broke of Canadian officials beginning high-level talks about reopening the border, Paul Colson was spending a quiet weekend on Lake of the Woods during Minnesota's fishing opener.
"It should have been hopping, but there were only two boats in the water, just like last year," said Colson, who owns Jake's Northwest Angle Resort. "And it was a stunner of a weekend."
As the U.S.-Canada border closure enters month 15, the Northwest Angle remains cut off, families remain separated and Americans with property in Canada are unable to visit to maintain it.
Border communities like International Falls also have suffered as Canadian customers — who in some cases represent 30% of dollars spent at area businesses — are kept away.
Canadians are allowed into the U.S. but, in most cases, must present a recent negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for two weeks upon their return, a major disincentive for nonessential travel.
"Ultimately we're hoping to see our communities reunited," said Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. "We've always considered Fort Frances (Ontario) a sister city. There is so much cross-border commerce, and the closure really has been disruptive for our communities."
Bloomberg News reported Friday that the border restrictions Canada imposed in March 2020 may soon be easing after "preliminary internal discussions about reopening the border with the U.S." recently began, according to anonymous sources.
The official line is that nothing has changed. "Vaccine passports" that would allow vaccinated travelers to cross with fewer restrictions remain only talking points.
"Until the conditions on both sides of the border change very substantively, the measures at our borders will remain intact," James Cudmore, director of communications for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said when talking to Bloomberg.
Canada Border Services Agency did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Canada has trailed the U.S. in vaccinating its residents, especially as it seeks to put months, not weeks, between the first and second doses of the shot.
As a result, 38.8% of Canadians have received at least one dose of the vaccine but just 3.3% are fully vaccinated, according to recent government data.
In the U.S., about 48% of the population has had at least one dose and 37% of Americans have had both doses. In Minnesota 49% of residents have had at least one dose and 42% have had two.
A recent surge of COVID-19 cases has led to a highly restrictive lockdown in Canada just as Minnesota has begun loosening restrictions.
Going from full lockdown to border reopening in a short amount of time seems like a tall order, Heibel said, and whatever happens is entirely in the hands of the Canadian government.
"It's disappointing for many people to be entering another summer season and still have the border closed," she said. "I hope Canadians in return feel the same about American tourists returning."
Colson and the other 100 residents of Minnesota's isolated Northwest Angle are waiting to hear when they will be allowed to cross through Canada and into the rest of the U.S. without a hassle. That may still be months away.
"What do I tell customers? 'We're hearing maybe the second half of the summer, something maybe might change,'" Colson said. "People here are feeling pretty beat down."
U.S. officials have been urging the Canadian government to make a border-crossing exception for the Northwest Angle, which is accessible by land only through Canada.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Monday wrote to Canada's ambassador to the U.S. saying, "It is vital that U.S. residents of the Northwest Angle are able to travel freely between the Northwest Angle and the mainland U.S."
Minnesota Republican Reps. Michelle Fischbach, Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer also sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week: "We believe there are solutions that can allow for American citizens to travel freely to the Angle while minimizing or altogether eliminating risk of further spread."
Fischbach recently introduced legislation that would compel the Department of Homeland Security to work with Canada on establishing "travel corridors" and another bill providing financial relief to Northwest Angle resorts.
Joe Henry, head of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said anything helps at this point.
"These businesses have worked for generations to build their clientele, and they're not going to automatically come back," he said.
"If your livelihood is cut off because of the pandemic and another country is making decisions for you, it's very frustrating."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496