On The Border: Essential workers commuting between the US, Canada reflect on border closure a year later

'I was actually concerned when COVID started'
Point Roberts, Washington normally relies on a constant stream of thousands of Canadian visitors doing day trips. The land border closure to nonessential travel - because of COVID - put a stop that and created a major economic strain on the community.
Posted at 12:36 AM, Mar 10, 2021

(WXYZ) — For nearly a year, the U.S.-Canada border has been closed to all non-essential travel in response to the ongoing pandemic.

“You didn’t realize how great we had it being able to just cross back and forth, even though they required a passport,” said Betty Bear, who lives in Windsor, Canada but commutes daily for work in Detroit as an essential health care worker.

Bear and other essential workers who cross the border almost daily have spent the last year adjusting to changes implemented due to the pandemic. These security changes largely focusing on individual health in an effort to minimize spread of the coronavirus.

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On March 18, 2020, when the border closure was first announced, it appeared to be a temporary response to a quickly evolving health crisis. Several times the reopening of the border was pushed back. Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of this global pandemic, the Canadian government has maintained that non-essential travel from the U.S. into Canada will remain halted until COVID-19 cases in the United States are more under control.

Whether the border will reopen by March 21 is a looming question, with newly elected President Joe Biden pushing for dialogue between the Canadian and Mexican governments in an effort to reopen the northern and southern borders in the safest manner.

The Canadian government has since incorporated stricter measures for permitted travel, adding mandatory COVID testing which is only exempt for some essential workers, as well as mandatory quarantining.

Economic Impact of the Border Closure

The economic implications of the border closure have been great, hitting Detroit tourism hard over the last year while forcing the local tourism industry to make adjustments.

“There’s no question we’ve had to make critical adjustments," said Larry Alexander, the CEO of Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau in an interview with 7 Action News in July 2020.

For the Henry Ford Museum, Canadians accounted for about four percent of all visitors with roughly 72,000 crossing over into metro Detroit for visits while also patronizing local hotels, restaurants and boutiques.

“It’s actually 65 percent of our total international market," said Carol Kendra, the vice president of Business Development, Strategy, and Engagement for The Henry Ford.

A Mutual Decision Between Countries

"We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing (sic) our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected," wrote then President Donald Trump in a tweet on March 18, 2020, to announce the border closure.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a "collaborative and reciprocal measure," as well as a "prudent approach" to the coronavirus, which was declared a global pandemic just days before on March 11.

Supply chains, including the trucking industry, were not to be impacted by the closure.

Essential workers, such as government officials, border and immigration officers, and health care workers traveling between Canada and metro Detroit were allowed to do so without the need for pre-entry tests and mandatory quarantine after entry into Canada, according to the country's listed exemptions and COVID guidelines.

Still, adjustments to this new normal were often felt daily by essential workers traveling during the pandemic.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

A Year of Border Travel for Essential Workers

“I was actually concerned when COVID started coming around because there were talks about the border closing and at first they didn’t mention anything about people who work in the states," said Jessie Richtig, who is American living in Windsor, Canada for the past two years while working at Royal Oak Beaumont.

She says her experience crossing the border almost daily as an essential worker has been somewhat of a "breeze" since the pandemic began. She has never had much trouble crossing over into Detroit as an American, and with Canada absorbing the cost for essential workers to cross over the bridge into Detroit, that made travel even easier.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

However, Richtig says her only inconvenience caused by the border closure will arise following her hip surgery scheduled for the end of March.

Under different circumstances, her husband would assist her in travel between Canada and the U.S., post-surgery. But because her surgery doesn't fall under an essential task, her husband would have to quarantine for 14 days after returning. With no benefits in place for non-essential travel, his job would not cover those missed days. Richtig said it could cause financial strain for her family.

So instead, she'll stay with a co-worker in metro Detroit for a few weeks until she's able to travel back across the border on her own.

For Betty Bear, clinical manager for the ambulatory clinic at the DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, her concerns over the past year have been inconsistencies in screening processes when crossing back over into Canada. Another point of frustration, she says, is discrimination she and other health care workers employed in Detroit have faced when they return to Canada.

“Nothing really has changed on the U.S. side coming in," Bear said. "It’s been going home; it’s been getting more and more strict because… we were deemed the people who were going to bring (COVID) into the country because we worked in Detroit.”

Bear says at the start of the pandemic, health care workers living in Canada but working in the U.S. faced discrimination locally at grocery stores, banks and other places out of fear because of rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

“People I know couldn’t go into butcher shops that they’d been going to for 20 years," she said. "And we were actually wearing masks before it was mandated to wear a mask going out.”

Bear said that led her to create the Facebook group "Proud to be a Canadian Nurse in Michigan," which has gained over 600 members since the start of the pandemic.

The group started off as a support system for health care workers who cross the border for work by providing tips on where Canadian residents can access everyday services without the stigma attached to working in the U.S.

It's evolved into an online communal space for essential workers who are Canadian and often traveling the border. They share when traffic is backed up on either the bridge or the tunnel, ask each other questions about screening processes and share other helpful information.

"You didn’t realize how great we had it being able to just cross back and forth, even though they required a passport."

Although Bear says much of the discrimination has decreased as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have gone down and vaccines have become available, she says the group still remains active, helping each other navigate the changes essential workers face during the ongoing pandemic.

She says a common issue is the inconsistencies with border screening going into Canada.

“The problem we’re having crossing now is we’re at the mercy of the CBSA officer in the booth," Bear said. "They have directives and they’re told what is deemed essential and what’s not deemed essential but there’s no algorithm that says... this is the person you need to question more.”

From COVID testing at the border for contingent workers to use of the ArriveCAN app, which is a pre-screening tool, Bear says on most occasions when she and other workers cross it's never quite clear how the process will go. On one occasion she was told by a Canadian border officer that the screening app was required, and the next time she crossed she was told it wasn't necessary.

The inconsistencies have been a source of frustration for Bear and other workers over the last year, which is why she's hoping for improved processes at the border as the pandemic continues.

"We try to do what we’re supposed to do but the game changes before we even know," Bear said, adding that she looks forward to gaining some form of normalcy as vaccinations continue to rollout.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) released a statement regarding screening processes saying in part:

The CBSA can only speak to the current measures in place. We are also unable to provide comment on specific cases or speculate as to why some individuals are allowed entry to Canada under different exemptions or instructions as others, as each traveller presents themselves to a border services officer under a different set of circumstances, with varying levels of information available.

What we can tell you is that all travellers seeking entry to Canada are subject to strict screening and security measures by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) border services officers (BSO) to ensure travellers understand their quarantine obligations and to verify travellers’ quarantine plan. As designated screening officers under the Quarantine Act, CBSA border services officers have the authority to review, challenge and confirm travellers' statements and direct them to a quarantine officer.

Essential workers who are on the Chief Public Health Officer group exemption list are found here.

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.

Visit our The Rebound Detroit, a place where we are working to help people impacted financially from the coronavirus. We have all the information on everything available to help you through this crisis and how to access it.