As the U.S. border reopened to nonessential traffic Monday, area government leaders urged Canadian officials to lift a 72-hour Covid-19 testing requirement in addition to proof of vaccination to gain admittance into Canada.
"Our work is not done," Rep. Brian Higgins said of the need to lift the testing requirement. "Canadians can come into the United States, certify they have been fully vaccinated, but upon their return to Canada they have to be tested.
"Those who have done the right thing on behalf of themselves, on behalf of their families and on behalf of their neighbors should be able to move freely between the United States and Canada without having to go through this redundant, unnecessary testing," Higgins said.
Higgins, co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, said he and others in the U.S. House of Representatives discussed lifting the testing requirement last week with Canadian Ambassador Kirsten Hillman and came away encouraged.
"I'm optimistic that on or before Nov. 21 there will be some announcement about a breakthrough," Higgins said.
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Higgins was among the political, cultural and business leaders who gathered at the Darwin Martin House's Greatbatch Pavilion to mark the return of Canadian travelers to Western New York.
Monday's reopening marked the return of nonessential crossings after 20 months. The U.S., Canada and Mexico agreed to close their land borders to nonessential travel on March 21, 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Crossing into Canada has been a particular burden for families.
Canada requires all travelers 5 years of age or older to provide proof of a Covid-19 negative test result. In addition, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated youth ages 12 to 17 are subject to a 14-day quarantine, while children under 12 are not allowed to attend school, camp or day care, be in indoor or outdoor crowds or ride public transportation.
Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino joined three border city mayors from Canada on Monday in calling on the Canadian government to drop the PCR test requirement.
"While everyone wants travelers to be safe and be mindful of public health standards, if our push for vaccination, on both sides of the border, means anything, then let's respect and incentivize those who have responded to the call to be vaccinated and simplify the land border crossing to showing your full vaccine status," Restaino said in a statement.
"With vaccination rates among the highest in the world, it's time to allow our families, friends and visitors who are fully vaccinated to the ease of safe travel that we once enjoyed," added Mayor Jim Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ont.
Still, Higgins called the resumption of binational travel and commerce "a celebration without question," noting the personal ties and economic relations between the two countries.
"We are at a better place than we were over the past 20 months," he said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz called the border reopening a major step toward restoring normalcy that's been absent since the start of the pandemic.
"We know that Canadians shop in our stores, go to our football and hockey games, when it's ski season come down and ski at Kissing Bridge and Holiday Valley, and it has been a tremendous loss for our community to not have that cross-border traffic," Poloncarz said.
Mary Roberts, the Martin House's executive director, said the return of Canadians will bring more visitors to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed complex and other cultural attractions.
"I couldn't be happier to know that our site will be once again hosting our many friends from the north," Roberts said. "The Canadian segment represents nearly 15% of our guests each year, and it is a growing market segment for both the Martin House and our region."
The return to the pre-pandemic level of travel of Canadians into the U.S. isn't expected to occur before 2023 or 2024, according to the U.S. Travel Association of Tourism Economics. But Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said he believes Western New York's proximity to Ontario should make it possible for the region to recover sooner.
"We know there is a great deal of pent-up energy for Canadians to cross the border and get back to Buffalo," Kaler said.
Kaler announced a new ad campaign, involving billboards, TV commercials, digital formats, contests, hotels and the airport, designed to entice Canadians to cross the border with the message, "If you haven't been to Buffalo lately, you haven't been to Buffalo."
"We want to invite Canadian travelers to experience what we're calling 'the other New York city,' with a lower case 'c,' " Kaler said.
Tom Kucharski of Invest Buffalo Niagara said the return of binational traffic will allow the agency to continue assisting Canadian companies to expand into the U.S., noting 43 companies last year expressed interest despite the border closed to nonessential travel.
"They're not going to make business decisions based on our drone camera or Google Earth," Kucharski said. "They've got to be here and be able to meet with folks. It's international business, and you do business with people you trust."
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.