WASHINGTON – We don't know when it will start, and we don't know when it will end. But sometime in the next few days, another routine part of life in Buffalo – visiting Canada just for fun – will fall victim to the coronavirus crisis.
The United States and Canada announced Wednesday that in hopes of containing the spread of the contagion, nonessential travel between the two countries will be temporarily suspended as soon as negotiators agree on what exactly nonessential travel is.
So starting sometime later this week, most likely, the only people crossing the border will be people who absolutely must do so for work: truck drivers supplying factories on the other side of the border, for example, or people on official government business.
"It's so unprecedented that there's really no playbook for any of this," said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.
He predicted that while commercial traffic at the border will continue, passenger traffic will fall 95% from its typical late-March levels.
"It's going to be down to next to nothing for probably at least a month," he said.
The leaders of the two countries offered no clarity as to exactly when the partial border shutdown will begin, but both President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed it is necessary.
"We don't want people coming into contact because that's the way we're going to win this war" against the coronavirus, Trump said at a news briefing in Washington. "That is so important."
Asked how long the partial border shutdown would last, Trump said: "I would say 30 days, and hopefully at the end of 30 days, we'll be in great shape."
Trudeau refused to be so specific.
"These measures will last in place as long as we feel they need to last," he said at a news conference in Ottawa.
The move will mean that shoppers and tourists can no longer cross the border. Sources said U.S. and Canadian officials were negotiating the final details, which will fully define what "nonessential travel" is.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, wrote to the head of Customs and Border Protection this week, asking for more such details.
“While we are in the midst of a public health crisis that requires extraordinary measures, we also need clear guidance to ensure that people who are working the border are safe, staffing levels are adequate and those who are critical to addressing this outbreak can cross the border in the most efficient way possible," Higgins said.
The exact definition of "essential travel" is still being determined, but some things are clear, said Paul Kwiatkowski, president of National Treasury Employees Union Local 154, which represents customs officers in the Buffalo area.
"We are going to start refusing Canadians coming over here to do shopping or whatever," he said. "I still can't believe they're coming over here to do that, but they are."
At the same time, though, Trump and Trudeau made clear that the new restrictions will allow commerce to flow freely. Both nations seek to protect the supply chain that links parts on one side of the border to manufacturing on the other, as well as the free flow of food and medical supplies.
"It's not affecting trade," Trump said of the new restrictions.
Trudeau agreed, saying: "Supply chains, including trucking, will not be affected by this new measure."
That's good news to Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. She said it's critical that supply chains be protected, so that businesses that rely on products from the other side of the border can continue to do so.
As for people who regularly cross the border, several said they had already gotten a sense that new limits on crossing the border were looming.
One Buffalo resident, attorney Peter G. Klein, encountered an unexpected issue Tuesday when traveling to his family's cottage in Ridgeway, Ont.
"I went through the NEXUS lane, and then they asked me if I intended to self-quarantine for 14 days. I said no. Then they told me they couldn't let me in," said Klein, who turned around and went home.
John Miller, 49, of East Amherst said his family canceled their plans for a Toronto trip to celebrate the birthdays of his wife and daughter, all in fear of a sudden border closure.
"Everyone kind of laughed when we said we wanted to cancel our Toronto trip to avoid the possibility of being stuck over the border," Miller said on Twitter. "But no one's laughing now."