As Sonya Lague looks around Rouses Point, the northern New York village where she owns the Lakeside Coffee Shop, she considers the question so many along the northern border are asking: Why?
Why is Joe Biden’s administration inflicting economic damage on businesses like hers, so unnecessarily? Why are the streets in Rouses Point devoid of Canadian cars, the village’s marina on Lake Champlain almost entirely empty of boats? What is the point of the continued closure of the northern border?
“I don’t know,” Lague said. “And I don’t understand.”
Neither does anybody else.
Elise Stefanik and Chuck Schumer don’t agree on much, but the North Country Republican congresswoman and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader have for months been calling on Biden to reopen the border for Canadian travelers. So have Democrats and Republicans, governors and mayors and other members of Congress, from Bangor to Seattle.
Nevertheless, the White House recently said foreign citizens will continue to be barred from driving or walking over the Canadian and Mexican borders until at least Oct. 21, keeping in place COVID-19 restrictions on nonessential travel introduced in March 2020.
Canada, mind you, now allows vaccinated Americans in, but the U.S. government has not reciprocated — despite significantly higher vaccination rates in Canada.
Meanwhile, the United States allows visitors to fly into the country but not drive.
Can somebody explain how it’s safer, during a pandemic, to crowd with hundreds of others in a steel tube rather than drive alone or with a small group in a car? Unless we’re to believe that being able to afford a plane ticket makes a person less susceptible to COVID-19, the blatantly prejudicial policy lacks logic.
Which may explain why the Biden administration hasn’t bothered to explain it, or even suggested what must happen for the policy to change.
“What’s the metric? What are we shooting for?” asked state Sen. Dan Stec, a Republican from Glens Falls whose district stretches to the border. “Just give us a plan.”
In the absence of one, communities along the border remain in a terrible limbo. Residents don’t know when life will return to normal. The economy is suffering.
“It’s just a complete closure of life,” said Massena Mayor Timothy Ahlfeld, a Democrat who talked about how shoppers, business owners and even youth hockey teams in his St. Lawrence County town have been harmed by the shutdown.
“And for what reason?” he asked.
A possibility is that the shutdown of the northern border is really about politics and problems at the southern border. Biden may fear that opening the border to Canada but not Mexico could lead to claims of bias or anger Mexican officials and residents of southern border communities.
Meanwhile, amid a surge of arrivals at the southern border, the Biden administration has sought to maintain a controversial Trump administration order that used the pandemic as an excuse to block and expel asylum seekers from Mexico and Canada.
As it defends the so-called Title 42 policy in court, the White House might struggle to argue that asylum seekers pose a risk to public health while opening U.S. borders to other travelers. (While a federal judge recently blocked the expelling of migrant families, the order remains in place for single travelers, and the Biden administration is appealing.)
But as Ahlfeld and others noted, the situation at the Canadian border has little in common with the surge that’s happening thousands of miles to the south. There is simply no health rational for keeping vaccinated Canadians from driving into the country.
“Allowing fully vaccinated Canadians to travel freely to our states and others would reflect the public health data which shows that vaccines work,” said a Sept. 17 letter from eight U.S. senators, including New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, urging Biden to “stop penalizing northern border communities.”
That penalty was obvious all summer in New York’s North Country. In campgrounds, restaurants and other places where Canadian visitors and the French language are usually common, both were notably absent.
“It’s highly impacted all the small businesses in town,” said Lague in Rouses Point, which is just south of the border. “It is really sad, and it makes no sense.”
To drive home the point, Lague told the story of a particularly determined family. Desperate to enjoy a planned two-week summer vacation, the family flew from Quebec to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, then made the six-hour drive north to Rouses Point.
So again, the question: What is Biden thinking?