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Border traffic plummets as Covid-19 restrictions take effect

The U.S-Canada border is now closed to most travelers because of the coronavirus crisis – and it shows.

With a ban on unnecessary cross-border travel taking effect Friday, auto traffic at the Peace Bridge over the weekend fell 72% compared to the corresponding weekend a year earlier, the Peace Bridge Authority reported. All weekend long, only 8,989 cars crossed the bridge, compared to 32,018 a year earlier.

Traffic fell even more dramatically at the bridges that link Niagara County to Southern Ontario. Auto traffic on Saturday was down 92% from the corresponding day a year earlier, and the number of cars crossing the border on Sunday fell 93%.

"We were thinking we would be between 80 and 90% down, so it'd be interesting to see how this week plays out," said Kenneth N. Bieger, executive director of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. "Obviously in the first few days, everybody is nervous and not sure where this is going."

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, could not be reached to comment on why the Peace Bridge's decline was much smaller than that of the Niagara Falls bridges. But other sources said it's likely because far more working people – medical personnel and the like – travel between Canada and Buffalo, rather than Niagara Falls bridges, which are used more often by tourists.

Bieger said the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission initially encountered some issues with employees crossing the border for work, but that those problems appear to have been worked out in recent days.

Customs officers on both sides of the border said the United States appears to be somewhat more lenient than the Canada Border Service Agency has been in terms of allowing people across the border.

U.S., Canada closing border to nonessential travel

That's partly because Customs and Border Protection has continued to allow people to cross the border to buy food and other essential items, whereas Canadian authorities have been turning away everyone without a definite and recurring reason to cross the border.

"If somebody shows up and they say, 'Listen, I went to 15 stores to find formula for my baby and they're all out, and I'm desperate – I need to try and find something here' – I mean, those are the kind of the one-off situations that you would hear," said Aaron Bowker, chief Customs and Border Protection officer and public affairs liaison for the agency in Buffalo.

But those situations are few and far between, Bowker said.

"Most of our traffic has been essential traffic," he said. "It's been people going to work, the nurses, the doctors, coming in from Canada."

Most often, those people are well-known to U.S. Customs officers.

"As far as medical industry is concerned, the officers are used to seeing the same people every day," Bowker said.

What's more, many of the people who regularly cross the border have Nexus cards, guaranteeing them quick processing at the border, he added.

At first, though, some customs officers were confused by CBP's guidance on who to allow into America, said Paul Kwiatkowski, president of National Treasury Employees Union Local 154, which represents customs officers in the Buffalo area.

That being the case, customs officers are now turning questionable cases over to the agency's management, which will decide whether a person should be allowed to enter, he said.

But Bowker said such cases are rare in light of how dramatically traffic at the bridges has fallen.

Bus traffic has plummeted, too. Eighteen buses crossed the Peace Bridge last weekend, down from 102 a year earlier. And the Niagara Falls bridges, which saw 48 buses cross the bridges last year, didn't have any bus traffic last weekend.

Truck traffic didn't fall all that much, though, given that the United States and Canada agreed to let most commercial shipments continue amid the ban on unnecessary travel.

Some 5,332 trucks crossed the Peace Bridge last weekend, down 8% from a year ago. And at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, truck traffic was down 11% Saturday and 7% Sunday from corresponding days a year ago.



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