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Families 'torn apart,' tourism dried up: The pandemic's effects on border towns

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Unique challenges are facing residents in Canadian and U.S. border cities and towns amid a ban on non-essential travel between the two countries during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Unique challenges are facing residents in Canadian and U.S. border cities and towns amid a ban on non-essential travel between the two countries during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke

When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began, Ellie Safari of Windsor, Ont., and her American boyfriend, James Darden, faced a heartbreaking decision.

Either he would hunker down just across the way in Detroit, where he works at a casino and has family, including his mother and his 18-year-old daughter.

Or he would stay with Safari and their two Canadian-born children — ages four and nine — in Windsor, where she works as a hotel guest services superviser and a personal trainer.

Darden has been living a cross-border life throughout his relationship with Safari, easily travelling back and forth between the nearby cities each week.

But with border restrictions in place, he stayed with Safari and their two young kids who need him the most right now. Plus, his teenage daughter in Detroit would be better able to understand the situation.

"It's definitely not easy seeing families torn apart," Safari says.

"It's nice that he's here to help out with the kids," she adds. "But there's a little bit of guilt as well, because I know he's missing his oldest daughter and his mom."

Safari's situation highlights some of the unique challenges for residents in Canadian and U.S. border cities and towns amid a ban on non-essential travel between the two countries during the pandemic.

Some have built lives, careers or businesses around the idea that they, their loved ones or customers could easily and quickly cross the line. But for many, that can't happen right now.

"There are familial relationships, there are child-custody relationships, there are a whole host of things that people are used to doing, because in the city of Windsor we consider Detroit and the greater Detroit area to be an extension of our backyard," says Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens.

"People in Windsor will pop over the border for lunch and then come back. They'll go get gas or groceries and come back — shopping, sports, music, all of that is just an extension of our city."

Dilkens doesn't foresee "a wholesale opening of the border" any time soon.

"But I think it's a loss that everyone's willing to accept in the short term for the betterment of the whole."

Safari and Darden have never been married and therefore he hasn't been able to live permanently in Canada. But they were content with him spending four days a week in Windsor, and three days in Detroit.

"He's going a little crazy" not seeing his daughter and mom in Detroit, Safari says, but they all keep in touch constantly through FaceTime and gaming apps.

And Safari finds solace in the idea that they're not alone, since many families are going through something similar.

Meanwhile, Safari describes the city as "eerie," with businesses shut down and the lights turned off on Caesars Windsor Resort and Casino, where Americans would take advantage of the lower Canadian dollar.

The financial impact from the lack of cross-border tourism and traffic is "quite significant," Dilkens says.

Toll revenue the city generates from owning half of the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, for instance, is down about 90 per cent. And the city is losing money from Caesars Windsor being shuttered.

"We get a dividend based on revenues, and we budget about $12 million annually to come from that operation," Dilkens says of the casino. "We can pretty much write off $3 million immediately from a loss this quarter. And who knows moving forward what this is going to look like."

Another challenge lies in the 1,600 health-care professionals who go over the border every day from Windsor-Essex to work in Detroit, which has been hit hard by the virus.

They're deemed an essential service and still able to cross, but they face stigma from the false notion that "they were a vector for transmission in our community," Dilkens says.

"The stats never showed that," Dilkens says. "In fact, it showed that they were less of a vector than our own health-care workers locally."

Beata Janikowski is among those health-care workers. She lives near Windsor in LaSalle, Ont., and has been working across the border as a lab technologist at the Detroit Medical Center for 22 years.

She says she's grateful for border agents who are showing support for health-care workers with signs in immigration booths containing messages including: "Thank you for what you do."

"It's really nice. It makes your day," Janikowski says.

"But the situation is sad when you don't see traffic at all, when you're alone on the bridge sometimes."

At the long-running Mexican restaurant El Nopal in Sumas, Wash., three blocks from the border of Abbotsford, B.C., business has plummeted because their Canadian customers are no longer able to make the quick walk or drive over.

Wendy Gonzalez, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband Jose Gonzalez, says 70 per cent of their business has been customers crossing the border from B.C. since they opened in 1988.

"It's really hard. I've had to put a lot of my employees on standby. It's scary here."

Gonzalez has often travelled to B.C. over the years, to shop or visit Canadian friends.

"You don't realize there's a border until now," Gonzalez says.

"I worry about it, but then again I know that it's a necessity for (the border shutdown) to stay in place as long as it has to."

In Woodstock, N.B., near the state of Maine, dental hygienist Jami Hood says she and other town residents used to make quick trips to shop or get cheaper gas and flights in Bangor.

The Bangor International Airport is a lifeline for Hood, since it's where she and her American husband of nearly a year and a half, Chris Hood, would get affordable flights to see each other.

He lives and works as a mechanical engineer in Columbia, S.C., and since last year she's been trying to get a green card so she can live there with him.

Hood last saw her husband in early January in Columbia and was supposed to see him for March break.

But the pandemic halted that plan, and now she's worried her green card application will be delayed and she won't get to see him for a long time.

"I've been down in the dumps, really missing him," Hood says.

"We'll video call and stuff and it's not the same. Sometimes I just want to reach through my screen and hug him, because I miss him a lot."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.

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