Thunder Bay

Northwestern Ontario mayors agree with extended border closure restrictions

The border closure to non-essential travel between the U.S. and Canada was set to expire on September 21, but two northwestern Ontario mayors hope restrictions remain in place well beyond the next month.

Fort Frances and Thunder Bay Mayors expect the Canada-U.S. border to remain closed past October

Land-border restrictions between Canada and the U.S. were extended to Oct. 21, but some mayors want the border to remain closed until the end of this year. (Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press)

The federal government will extend the Canada-U.S. land border closure for another 30 days until Oct. 21, CBC News has learned. 

The mayor of Thunder Bay and the mayor of Fort Frances, two municipalities close to the U.S. border, both said they understand the unique hardships created by the closure within the region, but stress the need for extended restrictions in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 from the country with the world's highest number of cases and deaths.

"We're in a very favourable position here in the city of Thunder Bay, in our district, right now but I think we all appreciate that could change very quickly. Cross-border traffic could contribute significantly to how quickly that might change," said Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro, in an interview with CBC.

As of Sept. 15, there are currently no active cases of COVID-19 reported by The Thunder Bay District Health Unit or the Northwestern Health Unit, which serves the Fort Frances area.

June Caul, Mayor of Fort Frances, said despite low numbers in the region, many municipal leaders near her town are aware of the risk and "dangers" of opening the border again and support keeping restrictions in place at the International Falls border crossing, and throughout out the country.

"It's very volatile over there," Caul said in reference to the U.S. "We need to get our own country in a healthy place so that we can travel back and forth in our own country before we allow people from the border to come in … our towns along the border would be the first ones hit."

The show of support from municipal leaders comes at a time when several border cities in northwestern Ontario are feeling the economic impacts over a loss of U.S. tourism throughout the summer.

Mauro said the general tourism sector, as well as local businesses and hotels have been negatively impacted by the closure in Thunder Bay, but added that some support programs are in place to aid those businesses.

Bill Mauro, Mayor of Thunder Bay Ont., says progress on the COVID-19 vaccine and the caseload in the U.S. should be considered when reopening the border. The Pigeon River International Bridge is south-west of Thunder Bay and connects Ontario's Highway 61 with Highway 61 in Grand Portage, Minnesota. (City of Thunder Bay)

"There is hardship out there that people are experiencing. But at the end of the day, I think generally, if you spoke with most people, they would probably land on the side of we need to we need to look first through the lens of health care," he said.

Caul said while countless tourism operators around Fort Frances have been impacted by the border closure as well, personal and familial hardships associated with the closure have also impacted her community.

"The hardest impact, I think, probably has been on families who have members on the other side of the border. I know one mother for sure who hasn't had a chance to see her daughter in months and months because of the border closings," she said.

Both Caul and Mauro said it's hard to pinpoint what needs to happen in order for them to feel comfortable with the borders reopening from their municipal standpoints. However, both reiterated that whatever steps need to be taken will take time.

June Caul, mayor of Fort Frances, Ont., says border agents at the International Bridge in her town have been "stellar" amid the extended border closure. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"I think that the situation south of the border, as well as waiting on the vaccine, or I'm not saying we have to wait until a vaccine is developed, but clearly those would be influential in terms of the position that you might take relative to reopening the borders," said Mauro.

Caul said she doesn't see the border reopening until the new year.

As of Tuesday, a source told CBC News that the federal government is waiting to see evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is being managed efficiently before the government considers opening up non-essential travel between the two countries. 

The closure has resulted in a dramatic drop in traffic between the two countries, although essential workers — such as truck drivers and health-care professionals — are still able to cross by land. Canadians are still able to fly to U.S. destinations.