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COVID-19 creates hardship and heartache along the Canadian border

Some businesses remain closed with the lights off on Main Street in downtown Calais, Maine. Canadians from neighboring New Brunswick used to account for a large percentage of business to Calais shops and restaurants. Now, businesses are struggling and many have closed their doors for good.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

CALAIS, Maine — The short bridge over the St. Croix River from downtown Calais to Canada stood ghostly quiet on a dreary afternoon, looking more like an abandoned railroad trestle than the bustling international link it has been for decades.

Lines of cars were nowhere to be found this recent day. Customs officials at either end, in Maine and New Brunswick, had little to do. And the eerily empty sidewalks of this small border city led past door after door of shuttered storefronts.

Such is life in the age of COVID-19 at the US-Canada border, where tough entry restrictions on both sides have kept families apart, choked local commerce, and upended the social habits of people who live in different countries but call each other neighbors.

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“It stinks,” said Cinthya Massy, who manages a Calais diner within sight of the crossing.

Jo’s Diner and Pizzeria used to draw nearly half its customers from neighboring New Brunswick, Massy said. But that was before the border closed March 20, blocking passage of all but essential travelers such as truckers, health-care workers, and citizens returning home to the United States.

Cinthya Massy, manager at Jo's Diner and Pizzeria in downtown Calais, cleaned off a table at the restaurant.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The restrictions on entering Canada also are strict, and Canadian authorities are not shy about monitoring whether the few visitors allowed from the United States are adhering to 14 days of quarantine upon arrival, several Calais residents said.

Popular sporting events such as the international sled-dog races in Maine have been canceled. Weekends crossing the border to see friends and relatives are a relic of the pre-COVID past. Even over-the-river shopping trips, crucial to small communities such as Calais, have been prohibited.

Regularly dispatched commercial vehicles can come and go between the countries, but the border closing also has limited families split by divorce, affecting visits with children when only a few miles might separate them. Day trips are no longer possible.

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“It’s frustrating,” said Marlys Farn Guillette, an artist with dual citizenship who has not seen her 87-year-old mother, who lives in Saskatchewan, since the pandemic began. Guillette also lost the downtown space she rented for her antiques business when the landlord closed shop after the virus hit.

“This is the first time in years she has not come out to see us,” Guillette said of her mother. “There have been occasions, if I’m at the beach, where I’ll just cry.”

Marlys Farn Guillette stood with her husband, Larry Guillette, near the Ferry Point Border Crossing. Marlys Farn Guillette is an artist with dual citizenship who has not seen her 87-year-old mother, who lives in Canada, since the pandemic began.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Although Canadians generally cannot visit relatives in the United States, limited exceptions are made for caretakers or those providing transportation to medical appointments. Final determinations for entry are made by individual US border officers.

“We understand that you can set a policy at the national level, but there are so many areas of gray,” said Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection. “Some of it is common sense to an extent. These are real people and real concerns and real problems.”

US travelers heading to Canada also face a complex set of requirements. For example, American citizens with immediate family in Canada are allowed to visit those relatives, including healthy ones, but they must provide border officers with family documentation and have made plans to quarantine for two weeks once they get there.

Canada also allows Americans outside of immediate family members to apply for “compassionate entry,” such as attending a funeral or visiting a loved one who is dying or critically ill.

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“It would be quite a chore to see her,” Guillette said of her mother. “I’d have to get tested, then isolate for 14 days, visit, and isolate again for two weeks when I got back.”

“I don’t blame Canada,” she added, “considering that the United States has the worst approach and the worst handling of the pandemic. Why would they want to invite trouble when they’re trying to deal with their own issues?”

David Borland, 40, has yet to see his 8-month-old son, Laiken, who is living with his mother in Nova Scotia.

“It’s been incredibly difficult,” said Borland, who works at Jo’s Diner. “With the quarantine, there was no way I was going to be able to get in” to witness his son’s birth.

David Borland, 40, moved to Calais from Florida nearly two years ago to be closer to his then-girlfriend who lives in Nova Scotia. Now, he is the father of an 8-month-old boy who he has yet to meet.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“I’d need a month off from work to see him for a day or two, and I can’t afford it,” Borland said. “Right now, she sends pictures, and we FaceTime, and I send support from the states, and that’s the best we can do until it all clears.”

One significant border exemption has been carved out for the 900 residents of New Brunswick’s Campobello Island, whose only land connection to the rest of Canada requires taking a bridge to Lubec, Maine, and traveling 40 miles to Calais to re-cross the border.

The islanders are allowed to drive into Maine for essentials there such as gas, groceries, and medical services without quarantining in Canada when they return.

That exception is unique. Overall, personal and economic hardships along the border are being scrutinized by a task force created by the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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“For a lot of people, their frustrations have only grown. You sit there feeling there’s a distant judge deciding who’s essential,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute. “None of the communities are fabulously wealthy.”

The task force is composed of four former politicians: ex-governors Rick Snyder and Christine Gregoire of Michigan and Washington state, respectively; former Quebec premier Jean Charest; and Anne McLellan, a former Canadian deputy prime minister.

Sands said the group expects to have a set of recommendations ready by mid-March, the one-year anniversary of the border closing.

“After 9/11, we were much quicker to have a conversation” about reopening the border, Sands said. “If we had an ability to open the border in June, you could plan for that. But right now, there is no indication” when more crossings will be permitted.

Canada has been extending the closing by a month at a time, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he plans to keep the border shut until the virus is under control. On Friday, he extended the restrictions for another month.

“The border restrictions are popular in Canada, because their perception is fueled by the bad stuff they see on TV, that we have high prevalence” of the virus, Sands said.

For many Canadians, he added, the thinking is: “Let’s keep these restrictions until the Americans get their act together.”

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Such concern is not difficult to understand. Maine has less than twice the population of New Brunswick, but 27 times as many COVID cases, a total of 15,206 cases compared with 546 in the province through Thursday.

Deaths are even more lopsided: 250 in Maine, seven in New Brunswick.

Shari Doten, who owns a Calais gift shop called Artemis’s Attic, said she doesn’t blame her Canadian neighbors for being wary, even though her business is off by 20 percent.

“I had a vendor who refused to wear a mask. Her president told her that it was all going to be OK,” Doten, 63, said with a sigh of contempt. The vendor no longer is selling at the shop.

A woman walked past shuttered businesses in downtown Calais.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Larry Guillette, a retired border officer in Calais, also laid part of the blame for the closure on Mainers and other Americans who don’t take simple precautions to protect themselves from the virus.

“If people were going by the rules and wearing masks, we wouldn’t have much of a problem,” said Guillette, who is Marlys’s husband.

Still, most people in Down East Maine recognize the need to hunker down, said Ed French, publisher of The Quoddy Tides newspaper, which circulates in both countries.

“It makes you feel somewhat protected, and people appreciate it,” French said of the regulations.

For Marlys Farn Guillette, the sacrifices of the last nine months seem similar to wartime.

“There were soldiers who couldn’t see their families for years. There’s the social impact, there’s the economic impact, but to have a grudge about this? No,” Guillette said. “Overall, people understand. We just need to suck it up.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.