- Sean Metcalf
Deb Howard had a choice to make.
It was early March, and the coronavirus pandemic was about to thrust American society into an indefinite shutdown. Howard knew it was only a matter of time before the threat of the virus would force American and Canadian officials to clamp shut their border, a move that would prevent the 60-year-old South Burlington resident from seeing her longtime partner, Guy Langevin, who lives in Québec's Eastern Townships.
Wary of being isolated, Howard packed a bag and headed north, where she knew she would not have to wait out the pandemic alone. She made it just in time.
On March 18, Canadian and U.S. officials agreed to close the border to all nonessential travel in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus between the two countries. The policy, which remains in place, means that if Howard were to return to Vermont, she and Langevin, 61, would have to wait out the pandemic apart.
"It's the first time the border's ever really been an issue for our relationship," Howard told Seven Days on the phone from Eastman, the Canadian town where she's remained for the last three months.
Howard is among the many Vermonters who regularly head into Canada for reasons both personal and economic. Daytrippers from Québec and Vermont often hop over to visit popular destinations in Montréal or Burlington. Families and friendships span the divide, as do many commutes. International grocery trips are common. Vermont businesses also benefit from the cultural exchange, with Canadians contributing to the state's $2.8 billion tourism economy.
The border closure is set to expire June 21, so hope remains that it may reopen in time for summer. But as cities in both countries continue grappling with outbreaks, those who have come to rely on a steady flow of visitors between the two allies know there's no guarantee.
"It's very, very difficult to figure out how things will play out," said Walt Blasberg, owner of the North Hero House, a waterfront restaurant and inn located in the Champlain Islands. "We just have to take it a day at a time."
The border closure has not prevented all international travel. Essential workers such as health care professionals and airline personnel can cross. So can goods such as food and medicine — and the weekly Seven Days edition, which is printed in Québec.
But individuals account for the vast majority of border crossings. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation show that traffic at Vermont's two busiest checkpoints has plummeted.
At Highgate Springs, only 6,700 personal vehicle passengers entered the U.S. this April, down from more than 71,300 in the same month last year. At Derby Line, only 1,350 personal vehicle passengers crossed, down from 57,600. Overall, personal vehicle traffic dropped a whopping 89 percent this April compared to last.
Most years, 600,000 to 700,000 Canadian tourists descend on Vermont. They can be found strolling Burlington's Church Street or zooming to destinations along Interstate 89. Others flock to Lake Champlain marinas, where they keep their boats docked.
Canadians book hotel rooms and cabins, eat at restaurants, and shop at local stores — all of which adds up to a roughly $150 million annual injection into the state's economy, according to Vermont's Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
North Hero's population triples every summer, thanks in large part to this annual migration, Blasberg said. And while most people who stay at his inn are American, his restaurant benefits from heavy Canadian day traffic and the town's robust population of second-home owners from north of the border.
At 71, Blasberg has been thinking about retirement. He put the North Hero House on the market about a year ago and recently had found a possible purchaser. Once the pandemic hit, the buyer decided there was too much uncertainty to move forward, Blasberg said.
"I imagine there'd be zero interest in buying properties like this right now," he said.
To be sure, much of Vermont's tourism economy would have been stifled even if the border were open. Most tourism-dependent businesses have been closed since March, and those that have opened in recent weeks have struggled to overcome stringent mandates, such as a requirement that out-of-state arrivals quarantine for 14 days. The border closure has been "lumped in with everything else" hitting bottom lines, said Cathy Davis, executive vice president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"It's a drop in the bucket," she said.
Gov. Phil Scott has recently eased some of those restrictions. After allowing lodging operations to reopen in a limited way in May, last Friday he removed quarantine requirements for travelers from areas in New York State and New England with 400 or fewer active COVID-19 cases per million people. At the time, about 55 counties in nearby states met that standard.
But Scott cannot control whether the border reopens. Northern Vermont business owners already feel the summer slipping away — and, with it, the revenue that helps get them get through the rest of the year.
"My busiest day in the summer can equal my worst week in the winter," said Todd Keyworth, who owns Harborside Harvest Market in North Hero, where many Canadian second-home owners shop. Each week the border remains closed, Keyworth said, means another prime week gone.
"We're all sitting here as the clock ticks," he said.
President Donald Trump has signaled he may be willing to loosen the border restrictions this month. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday moved to allow immediate family members of Canadian citizens to enter the country. But people in both nations are wary of an influx of outsider arrivals amid uncertainty about the possibility of a second pandemic wave.
Even if the border does open June 21, Howard, the South Burlington visitor to Canada, isn't convinced it will solve her problem. Now that the two countries have taken the "bold" move to restrict travel, she believes it will be much easier to prolong the arrangement or reinstate it if the pandemic flares up again. Plus, if the quarantine requirements stay in place, she and Langevin would only be trading one house arrest for another.
Her concern is somewhat softened by the fact that her Canadian excursion has turned out quite well. She had initially traveled north because she thought that she and Langevin would be able to help each other if either got sick. What's kept her there is that she has found she enjoys living with him. They go on daily walks. They cook for each other.
"It's been really great to be with another human being," she said. "I think people who are alone are suffering."
Both run their own professional consulting businesses, and Langevin bought her an office chair and computer monitor so she can work from his house. He built her a rock garden to feed her green thumb.
This has become perhaps one of the pandemic's only silver linings for Howard. Though she and Langevin have typically seen each other at least twice a month since they met online seven years ago, the two had not planned to live together until they retired. Now, she knows that her long-distance relationship can withstand even a three-month global pandemic. "I feel much more comfortable about our future together because of how we've weathered this," she said.
At the same time, Howard can feel herself being drawn back to her old life in Vermont, especially as the days grow longer. The predominantly French-speaking Canadian town she lives in has made it difficult to forge new relationships, though she has tried to learn the language over the years. She misses her friends and family, and she can't help but think of all the small obligations awaiting her attention in South Burlington: doctor appointments, prescription pickups, a garden filled with weeds.
Howard and Langevin have already had difficult conversations about what they would do if the border closure were extended. Much will depend on what her family in upstate New York does for the summer, she said; she hasn't been able to see her 84-year-old mother in months. But she also knows that if she leaves, she would have no idea when she could see Langevin again.
"To not be able to be together is frightening to me," she said. "We're just hoping that doesn't happen."