Out of bounds: Golfers barred from course that straddles Canada-U.S. border
Aroostook Valley members from New Brunswick seek exemption from COVID-19 border restrictions
They are Canadian, and their beloved course is in Canada, but COVID-19 has prevented golfers in the Perth-Andover area from teeing off at the Aroostook Valley Country Club.
The closure of the Canada-U.S. border, which divides the course and clubhouse from the pro shop and parking lot, has made the greens off-limits to almost half of the club's members.
"We're kind of in no man's land," says club pro and manager Stephen Leitch.
"Our golf course is available and open to those who can gain access to it. Unfortunately right now, due to the fact that Canadians have to go through a border … they cannot gain access."
Club members are now lobbying U.S. officials to come up with some kind of travel pass that would let them cross into Maine to reach the course.
"It's worth a try," says long-time member Brent Hatchard, a New Brunswicker. "We have no other option right now."
To grasp the golf course's border conundrum, you have to understand the unique configuration of the club and the roads surrounding it.
The parking lot and pro shop sit on the U.S. side of the north line, the section of the border running north-south between New Brunswick and Maine.
You can get there easily on the Maine side by driving on the Russell Road from Fort Fairfield. But there's no public road to the course on the Canadian side.
Before the September 2001 attacks, U.S. border officials took a relaxed approach to members of the golf club.
They could drive up a country road, the Brown Road, and turn onto Russell Road, entering the U.S. without clearing customs.
But after the attacks, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stopped allowing that. Canadian golfers had to enter the U.S. at the Fort Fairfield checkpoint, then loop back to the course.
Everyone adapted — until the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen Canada and the U.S. agree to close the border to all non-essential traffic.
So Canadian golfers can't enter the U.S. to get to their Canadian course — and even if they could, they'd have to self-isolate for 14 days upon crossing back into New Brunswick.
"This is a COVID-19 issue," Leitch said. "It's really not a border issue. It's just that we're located in a bad spot when it comes to something like this right now."
On the club's website, members are being asked to email staffers in the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who grew up in the area, to make the case for some kind of exemption.
But Hatchard figures the odds of that happening are slim.
"We'd like to believe it's 50-50 but it may not be. We'd like to believe it's 90 per cent in our favour, but who knows?" he said.
"It's such a minor thing when you look at the overall border crossings for the 3,000 miles between the two countries. We're just a blip. That's the issue. But locally it's a big deal."
In theory, Canadian golfers could reach the course by helicopter or cutting through woods and farm properties on the New Brunswick side, Hatchard said, but there are practical obstacles to those ideas.
Members still paying dues
The club opened in 1929 and is a non-profit operation owned by its members. Last year it had 106 U.S. members and 86 Canadians.
It's following New Brunswick Public Health rules on physical distancing and other COVID-19 precautions.
Leitch himself is Canadian. He lives in Grand Falls and has been recognized as essential by governments on both sides of the border so he can cross to go to work every day.
Under New Brunswick's emergency declaration, people like him who commute across the border daily for work are also exempt from the two-week self-isolation requirement.
Many Canadian members, "knowing that the situation could drag on" and that they may not get to play this season, have nonetheless paid their annual dues to ensure the club has a healthy cash flow.
"You'd hate to lose an asset of that calibre," Hatchard said.
Border closure extended
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential travel would be extended to June 21.
Leitch said if they can get to the club sometime in the summer, Canadian members could have their fees prorated in some way. "That's the way this place has always operated, in a spirit of fairness," he said.
"When we get this behind us, I like to think we'll be able to continue to do business and keep the place afloat going forward. It means a lot to our members and I know it means a lot to the golfers in New Brunswick and Maine as well."