Tour boats at Niagara Falls show contrast between U.S., Canadian approach to COVID-19

Images of American and Canadian cruises at Niagara Falls have caused discussion to swell on social media, with many suggesting the stark contrast in passengers is symbolic of the difference in the Canadian and American approach to COVID-19.

'The visuals are pretty ridiculous,' says Hornblower Niagara Cruises vice-president

American tourist boat Maid Of The Mist, limited to 50 per cent occupancy under New York state's rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic, glides past a Canadian vessel limited under Ontario's rules to just six passengers, in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Tuesday. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The two boats tell very different stories.

Aboard Maid of the Mist VII, passengers in blue ponchos appear to fill the top deck and wrap around the lower level as it sails on the American side of Niagara Falls. The passing Canadian-run Hornblower is all but empty with just a handful of people wrapped in red, huddled in pairs near the railing.

Images of the boats cruising past each other below the iconic landmark have caused discussion to swell on social media, with many suggesting the stark contrast in passengers is symbolic of the difference in the Canadian and American approaches to COVID-19.

It's a contrast Hornblower Niagara Cruises vice-president Mory DiMaurizio said he's noticed too.

"When you look at what's happening in Ontario or Canada, there's clearly a difference," he said.

"That's clearly evident in terms of what's happening with respect to the number of infections and recoveries and deaths proportionate to the population base of our two countries."

Although the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the United States, Canada has largely fared better, helped by strict physical distancing measures and mask requirements in several jurisdictions.

At the famous waterfalls on the U.S.-Canadian border, Canadian ferries are limited to just six passengers per boat, out of a 700-person capacity. But on the U.S. side, the ferries are operating at 50 per cent capacity, according to Maid of the Mist boat tours.

"We actually took a picture of the [American] boat," said Julie Pronovost, visiting from Quebec with her family on Tuesday. "I don't find that it's very safe to be on a boat like that. It's much better here."

A spokesperson for the Maid of the Mist did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company's website said it was following the guidance of New York State public health officials.

The boats contain markers to keep visitors spaced out, and face coverings are compulsory, among other safety changes, it said.

DiMaurizio said his cruise line is also following health precautions, including temperature checks and mandatory masks for everyone on board.

They're currently able to transport 10 people, but that number also includes four crew members needed to make the trip.

"The visuals are pretty ridiculous. You've got this giant vessel with six people on it, but that's what's permitted," he explained.

"Of course, when we look across the way at our competitor, we would love to have the ability to carry 30 per cent or 50 per cent, but to do so in a safe way is equally important, or even more important."

Slowly turning up the volume

Tourists at the falls on Tuesday said they felt much safer with the six-person per boat limit.

"I'm glad I'm in Canada," said Amanda Barnes of Brampton, Ont. "You can see why the pandemic is raging in the United States and not in Canada when you look at the difference between the boats."

Jose Mannucci, Mariah Wilson and Jasmine Demers ride the Canadian tourist boat Hornblower, on Tuesday. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The United States reported 57,777 new COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, compared with Canada's 786. Cases per million in the U.S. have gone from 5,408 at the start of June to 11,996 this week, compared to 2,409 and 2,973, respectively, in Canada in that same time period, according to statistics compiled by Oxford University-based site Our World in Data.

New York state, however, is faring better than some other parts of the U.S., largely flattening the curve compared to its surge earlier in the pandemic.

The state has seen a total of 436,576 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 823 new cases Wednesday, compared to a peak of 11,661 on April 15, according to Worldometer, which compiles coronavirus data from government and other sources.

On Wednesday, there were 146,519 known active cases of COVID-19, down from 295,984 at the start of July. And the bulk of the state's cases are also still in the New York City area, rather than the counties surrounding Niagara Falls.

The state has imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement on anyone arriving from out of state.

DiMaurizio compared Ontario's approach to COVID-19 to "turning the volume up slowly."

The latest increase in volume is set to happen Friday, when Niagara moves into Stage 3 of the province's reopening plan.

Under those guidelines, Hornblower will be able to boost its number of passengers to 100, DiMaurizio said, but he expects the visual comparison between the two cruise companies will still be stark.

Those 100 people will still be "on a vessel that holds 700 passengers so it's still going to look really skinny … on that vessel," he said, pointing out that space leaves ample room for physical distancing.

"It's still going to look pretty empty. But we'll take it."

With files from Reuters