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U.S. land border opening brings Canadians eager to head south

The U.S. land border opened at midnight on Monday after being closed since March 2020, allowing many Canadians eager to head south to enter the U.S. for the first time in 20 months.

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UND's Matteo Costantini keeps the puck away from Denver's Mike Benning during Saturday's game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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PEMBINA, N.D. - As the U.S. land border opened for travelers from Canada for the first time in 20 months, some Canadians jumped at the chance to drive south.

“We’re just happy that finally Canadians can come to America and Americans can come to Canada. We’re back to almost normal,” said Donna Rodomski of West St. Paul, Manitoba. She and her husband John stopped at the duty free store in Pembina, North Dakota for gas on their way to their winter home in Mesa, Arizona.

At the Pembina-Emerson border crossing, around 20 cars were lined up waiting for entry to the United States on Monday morning, Nov. 8. The border opened at midnight on Monday after being closed since March 2020. While there was not the rush of travelers expected by some Canadians who had prepared to enter the U.S., the crossing saw a steady trickle of travelers heading to the states.

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Many of the Canadian travelers who stopped for gas at the duty free store in Pembina were snowbirds heading to vacation homes in places like Arizona and Texas for the first time in more than a year.

“Winnipeg is cold in the winter. Cold and miserable,” said Sheldon Liebrecht, who stopped on his way from Winnipeg to Arizona. He plans to remain in Arizona for the next five months.

Last winter, Canadians were allowed to fly into the U.S., while the land border remained closed. John and Donna Rodomski still made it to their winter home in Mesa through the loophole. They were excited that this year, they could drive their own vehicle across the border.

“We’re happy campers,” said Donna Rodomski.

“Last year, we had to charter a plane to fly to Grand Forks and we had our car put on a semi and transported down,” said John Rodomski. “A commercial driver could get across the border, but we couldn’t, but we could fly across.”

The Rodomskis expected the wait at the border to be a few hours, but said it only took 20 minutes to make it through the Pembina-Emerson crossing.

“We know people that were at the border at midnight thinking there would be crazy lineups. Talk about waiting like kids for Christmas,” said John Rodomski.

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Saskatchewan residents Jeff Leach and Angela Knight stop in Grand Forks on their way to Florida after the U.S. border reopened Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Angela Knight, on her way to Port St. Lucie, Florida from Lumsden, Saskatchewan, with her husband Jeff Leach, said the Neche-Gretna border crossing was just as quick. The couple came to the U.S. before the land border opened to purchase their house in Florida, but the trip was costly and time consuming. In Canada, patients have to pay for PCR tests, which can cost more than 200 Canadian dollars ($160).

“That was really really expensive to do it that way with the COVID tests. It cost a bit more money and a lot more time,” said Knight.

Norman Klippenstein was another Manitoba resident who chose driving over flying when heading south. He was also on his way to Phoenix, Arizona first for a family gathering, and then to travel around the southern United States.

“We decided to drive instead of fly because we’re so tired of the hassle. I’m so happy to get away from Canada because we’re kind of behind the U.S,” said Klippenstein.

Pembina water tower

Farther east, no signs of Canadian traffic were immediately visible Monday morning in Roseau, Minnesota, or on state Highway 310 between Roseau and the Manitoba border about 10 miles to the north.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection crossing north of Roseau, also appeared to be quiet. That’s probably not surprising, given the sparsely populated nature of southeast Manitoba.

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Still, border communities such as Roseau and nearby Warroad benefit from Manitoba visitors, and the reopening of the U.S. border to nonessential Canadian travel is a welcome step, Roseau Mayor Dan Fabian said.

“It’s great news,” Fabian said Monday morning. “There’s a lot of things that are necessary down here for our Canadian neighbors, and there’s a lot of business here for them to take advantage of, use and enjoy and whatnot. It’s good for our local economy, and it’s nice having people around.

“I think it’s a really big step, and we’re looking forward to it, obviously,” Fabian added. “I feel like maybe this is one more step in the right direction of getting to a better place with the pandemic and all of the obstructions that have occurred.”

In Lancaster, Minnesota, four Canadian vehicles had stopped by Bernstrom Oil Convenience Store on U.S. Highway 59 as of midday Monday, said Sarah Lenhart, a five-year store employee.

Three were nonessential travelers, Lenhart said, including four girls traveling south to see family six hours away. The fourth was an essential worker who travels through Lancaster for work.

No Canadian vehicles were at the convenience store when the Herald stopped by shortly before noon Monday. Lancaster is about 11 miles south of the Manitoba border.

To get into the U.S. Canadian travelers must be fully vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination upon entry to the country.

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Stuart Adam of Stonewall, Manitoba, gases up his vehicle in Pembina as he and his wife, Shelly, make their first trip to the U.S. in 20 months during the border closure. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Getting in was easy, said Stuart Adam. He and his wife Shelly, who traveled from Stonewall, Manitoba, came to the U.S. to shop and visit casinos.

“It was very easy to come in,” said Adam. “Very nice young guy at the border, happy, smiling. In Canada, not so much.”

The pair is more worried about the return to Canada at the end of their stay.

“I have to produce a test before I can go back to Canada, otherwise I might hit some quarantine regulations,” said Adam.

The Canada government requires anyone entering the country to provide proof of a negative molecular test taken no more than 72 hours before entry. Rapid antigen tests are not accepted. The Adams' plan to take their re-entry tests in Grand Forks, where testing is free.

For many Canadians, the re-entry requirements are enough of a deterrent to keep them from crossing the border at all. On Monday morning, a Herald reporter was invited to talk on Connecting Winnipeg, a Canadian radio show, to discuss testing requirements. Most listeners who called, emailed and texted host Hal Anderson indicated they did not have plans to cross the border right away due to the cost of tests required to re-enter Canada and other concerns about COVID-19.

Callers to the program questioned the point of testing in Canada for a weekend in Grand Forks. Some Canadians crossing the border may need to secure a test in their home province before crossing the border, in order to have the requisite test needed to return home.

"I don't understand how you can take a test in Winnipeg, be negative, go out to Grand Forks for a day and come back," said one caller. "That means you're still negative?"

Anderson said he would wait to travel to the region, based on Grand Forks County's vaccination rate, of just more than 56%. In Manitoba, 83.9% of eligible Manitoba residents have received two doses of a vaccine.

Herald reporter Adam Kurtz contributed to this report.

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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