DULUTH – Less than a mile from the Canadian border in northeastern Minnesota, Ryden's Border Store has been painfully quiet during the pandemic.
Owner Mike Boomer said business is down 90% at his convenience store and gas station, his general manager of more than 10 years departed and he doesn't know where he'll find employees once the border finally reopens to more travelers.
"Being a third-generation business owner has its own challenges without two governments working against us," Boomer said during a roundtable discussion on Tuesday. "We need some sort of opening — not tomorrow, we need it now."
Republican Reps. Pete Stauber and Michelle Fischbach, whose Minnesota districts cover the state's northern border with Canada, asked area residents to share their stories of hardship during Tuesday's event in International Falls, which two Canadian members of Parliament joined virtually.
"I can feel, I can see the pain, and it bothers me," said Stauber. "To have a blanket policy, on both sides of the border, I think it's unfair."
The border effectively closed to nonessential travelers in March 2020 to halt the spread of COVID-19, hurting businesses on both sides and communities that have been cut off from their neighbors, friends and family members, said officials from both countries.
"There is a great working relationship between Canadians in Manitoba and the medical care center in Roseau — but that's not working out so well now," said Roseau Mayor Dan Fabian.
In February, the Canadian government told its residents to "cancel your vacation plans" as new testing requirements were implemented to discourage travel out of the country and the potential importation of coronavirus. Americans and other foreigners who enter Canada must quarantine for two weeks, with few exceptions.
All four Republicans in Minnesota's congressional delegation, along with Democrat Dean Phillips, joined a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives urging the Biden administration in a letter earlier this year to "increase the number of essential traveler exceptions to current border restrictions."
Marcus Powlowski, a Liberal member of Parliament who represents an area along the border stretching from Thunder Bay to Lake of the Woods, said widespread vaccination is the ticket to easing border restrictions.
"I wouldn't be too pessimistic about the opening," he said. "It will come in the not too distant future, but unfortunately we can't say when."
Powlowski said by June or July, Canada will have a "significant portion of our population vaccinated."
"When we have a lot of people vaccinated, the vulnerable people covered, and we have Americans showing they're vaccinated, I think that's when we're going to reopen the border, because the benefits will outweigh the risks."
The Canadian government has not announced any plans to allow foreigners who are vaccinated to enter the country, though the idea has been floated for several months.
At the Grand Portage Casino, more than 80% of customers come across the border from Thunder Bay. Services on the reservation are supported in large part by casino revenue, which the border closing has strained.
"We have one road in and one road out," said Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Robert Deschampe. "It's very important to us to get the border open."
Conservative Member of Parliament Dan Mazier, who represents a rural swath of western Manitoba, called for a "coordinated plan between our two countries."
"We both need to be on the same page," he said. "We need to be talking as neighbors about how we are going to overcome this."
The resorts that dot the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods and the handful of year-round residents have been especially impacted by the border restrictions, as the land is only accessible by a route that crosses into Canada.
Some at Tuesday's roundtable called for an international travel corridor, or to ask those seeking to cross Manitoba back into the U.S. to sign an affidavit or agree to GPS tracking. Or a pilot car could guide residents to and from the Angle, said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. Paul Colson, owner of Jake's Northwest Angle Resort, said he didn't know if he could get back across the border after traveling to International Falls for the event.
Powlowski vowed to work with the Canadian government to find a solution for Northwest Angle travel.
"You have to push [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, and we have to push President Biden and his administration," said Stauber. "We can't wait any longer."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496