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Canada's COVID-testing requirement stands to limit cross-border travel – at least for day-trippers

Anyone entering Canada must be fully vaccinated and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before crossing the border. The U.S., meanwhile, only requires nonessential Canadian travelers to show proof of full vaccination.

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Charlie Bernstrom of Bernstrom Oil and Convenience Store in Lancaster, Minnesota, said there were a few nonessential Canadian travelers stopping by on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, but he doesn't expect traffic to get back to pre-pandemic levels until Canada lifts its requirement that travelers returning to the country show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of crossing. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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This week’s opening of the U.S. land border to nonessential Canadian travel appears to be more of a trickle than a flood in most areas of northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, and it likely will stay that way until Canada lifts its COVID-19 testing requirements for entering the country, according to people who live and work along the border.

The U.S. opened its land border to nonessential Canadian travel Monday, Nov. 8, nearly three months after Canada allowed nonessential U.S. travel on Monday, Aug. 9. The border had been closed since March 2020.

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Bernstrom Oil and Convenience store along U.S. Highway 59 in Lancaster, Minnesota, had three vehicles with nonessential travelers pass through as of midday Monday, according to Sarah Lenhart, a store employee.

Before the pandemic, Canadians accounted for about 60% of Bernstrom Oil’s business, said Charlie Bernstrom, a partner in the family business since 1990. Bernstrom also operates a parcel service to save shipping costs for Canadian customers buying goods in the U.S.

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“I didn’t think it would be too busy just because of the whole testing thing, but there have been a few people that have been antsy to get across, I’m sure,” Bernstrom said. “I’m sure it’s busier than what it has been.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, has been advocating for border reopening throughout the pandemic, and said Monday’s reopening is a game-changer for businesses in Minnesota.

“In 2019, prior to the pandemic, Canadians spent $175 million in Minnesota, so that’s how much money we’re talking about with tourism. That has not been zeroed out, but severely limited because of the restrictions,” said Klobuchar.

Still, Canada’s testing requirement stands as a major roadblock to restoring cross-border traffic to pre-pandemic levels. Anyone entering Canada must be fully vaccinated and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before crossing the border. The U.S., meanwhile, only requires nonessential Canadian travelers to show proof of full vaccination.

Lancaster is about 10 miles south of the Manitoba border.

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The U.S. Customs and Border Protection crossing north of Lancaster, Minnesota, is seen Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, the first day nonessential Canadian travelers were allowed to enter the U.S. since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

“You still have to get a negative COVID test to get back up there, so they can’t just come to Lancaster to get gas or go to the grocery store or whatever and go home because we don’t have that testing,” Bernstrom said.

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The closest place to get the PCR molecular test that Canada requires is probably Thief River Falls or Grand Forks, Bernstrom says.

“It doesn’t make sense to drive 10 miles to cross and then drive another hour and a half to get tested and wait a day to get your results,” he said. “I’m not anti-testing – I’m just saying it’s not convenient.”

Klobuchar acknowledged that testing requirements for re-entry into Canada are difficult, and she believes eventually, they need to be phased out.

“Just as we don’t have testing requirements between Minnesota and North Dakota, we should look at it the same with our friendly neighbor to the North because of the amount of driving traffic,” said Klobuchar. “So that’s what I’ll be advocating for – limiting this to vaccinations.”

While a few Canadian vehicles crossed into the U.S. on Monday north of Lancaster, traffic appeared to be quiet at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection crossing north of Roseau, Minnesota, and no Manitoba license plates were in sight along the community's main street. At the 24-hour Warroad border crossing, staff estimated they had about 10 more vehicles cross than a typical Monday since the onset of the pandemic, but specific numbers weren’t immediately available from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Like Bernstrom, Betty Thompson of Piney, Manitoba, said she expects Canada’s testing requirement will limit Canadian travel to the U.S., at least for short-term visitors. Thompson, who grew up in Pinecreek, Minnesota, in Roseau County, has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship but said the testing requirement makes trips across the border to Minnesota too much of a hassle.

To return home, Thompson says, she’d have to drive 60 miles one-way in the other direction to Baudette, Minnesota, for a $130 rapid PCR test or travel a similar distance out of the way to Steinbach, Manitoba, before even crossing into the U.S. for a PCR test that costs between $200 and $300 Canadian funds.

“So it limits anyone wanting to go to the States for a day trip because of the cost,” Thompson said. “It’s sad for us living along the border going to Roseau or Warroad for supplies and a sad thing for the border communities who rely on each other for everything from recreation to shopping to visiting family.”

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At the very least, Thompson says, she’d like to see the testing requirements exempted for day trips into the U.S.

“It’s just not worth the hassle until they get rid of the testing,” she said.

Klobuchar believes as time goes on, the region will see more normal traffic from Canada, especially over weekends and holidays.

“I bet when you look at those numbers at Thanksgiving, they’re going to be much more bound for things in North Dakota and Minnesota,” said Klobuchar.

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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