Word that Canada may reopen its borders to fully vaccinated Americans in mid-August has buoyed resort and outdoor business owners decimated by the yearlong closure, as well as those eager to return to Ontario's remote northern waters.
But they're also wary.
"I won't believe it until I see it," said Jason Goulet, part owner of the family business, Angle Outpost Resort in the Northwest Angle, the chimney-like chunk of Minnesota that juts into Canada.
Goulet's resort, like many others, has been cut off from most of its customers, who haven't been able to cross the border since it was closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also shut out were U.S. citizens who own cabins in Canada, as well as those who canoe in its wilderness areas.
Goulet and others are hanging onto a thread of optimism after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that the border could reopen next month to fully vaccinated Americans as long as the current positive path of vaccination rate and public health conditions continues.
Cabin owners were buoyed, too. The news sent Chris Causey to his St. Paul garage, where he began taking inventory of items he plans to take to his Rainy Lake cabin. Causey hopes for a late-summer visit after not having been there since the border closing. He has relied on a local resident to check on it.
"I know there's no bear in my bed or a tree on my roof," he said. "But the mice might have gotten comfortable in my cabin. I'm sure there will be some surprises waiting for me."
Causey knows Canadian officials could change their minds about reopening the border if something goes awry, such as an uptick in COVID-19 cases because of the delta variant.
Up in the Northwest Angle, Goulet has had his optimism dashed before with every monthly extension of the border closure. "I don't want to get my hopes up again," he said Friday.
He and others say they'll be more comfortable when Canada announces a firm date for a reopening and other details such as whether COVID tests or quarantines will be required for visitors. Without that information, it's difficult for resort owners and their customers to make plans, said Eric Brown, owner of Totem Resorts in Sioux Narrows, Ontario.
Except for a few Canadian visitors, Brown's resorts have been empty since the border closing. "I have 350 beds, 200 employees and 100 boats all sitting idle," he said. "This has devastated us."
Now he's "friggin' excited about the possibility of having 700 to 1,000 guests coming," said Brown, who hopes to salvage the waning weeks of summer and keep his resort busy through mid-October.
"Our guests want to come in the worst way," he said. "That would save us."
U.S. residents make up the majority of visitors to the resorts, lodges and camps in Minnesota's Northwest Angle and those peppered across Ontario.
With the border closed, Ontario businesses have tried to bolster business from Canadians, said Laurie Marcil, executive director for Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, which represents about 1,000 lodges and camps, including more than 150 owned by Americans.
"But it's been very challenging," she said. "There aren't enough [Canadians] looking for that kind of experience." What's more, she said, Lake of the Woods and northwest Ontario are closer to the large U.S. population in the Midwest than they are to Toronto.
Last month, her organization held a news conference to call the Canadian government's attention to the economic hardships caused by the border closure. They urged Trudeau to open the border July 22 to fully vaccinated Americans in hopes of salvaging the last of summer.
Like Goulet, Marcil said business owners can't do much until a definitive plan is announced. "Will people be required to quarantine? If so, that will be a deal breaker," she said.
Even a simple vaccine requirement could keep some regular guests to the remote resorts and camps away, Goulet said.
"It might cut down our clientele in half," he said. "Some won't get the vaccine and others have put it off."
Goulet himself has yet to be vaccinated. "I had COVID so I just haven't felt a need to get vaccinated," he said, an argument that goes against the advice of medical experts.
That could change if vaccines are required to get him and his wife into Jamaica, where they like to travel, Goulet said.
Likewise, those eager to get back into Canada may suddenly decide to get vaccinated, he said.
Even if the border reopens in August, it won't make up for the summer business already lost. "Summer is usually winding down then, with people getting ready for school," said Goulet, who worked construction in North Dakota's oil fields more than a half-dozen times over the past year to offset his resort's income losses during the pandemic.
But a border reopening would bode well for winter, when ice fishing lures folks to the Northwest Angle.
Last winter, resort owners built a 22-mile road across frozen Big Traverse Bay, from Warroad to the Angle's south end, avoiding the closed border. "I don't think anyone wants to plow an ice road again," said Goulet, noting the expense and uncertainty of the weather.
Despite the reservations of some, Trudeau's announcement was the glimmer of hope so many in the northland need, according to Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism: "We haven't heard messaging like this from Canada for 14 months. … We're going to have to build our area back up," Henry said. "It's not like the border opens up and everybody just comes back."
Staff writer Brooks Johnson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788