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Over A Year: Canadian Border Closure Extension Keeps Families Apart

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tomorrow marks a year since the closing of the world's longest land border after the U.S. and Canada disallowed nonessential travel across it. It's left thousands of families split, separated by a border they used to cross with ease. The restrictions were extended this week. And as Canada's vaccination program lags, reopening seems a long way off. Emma Jacobs reports that many families are pressing for changes.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Joyce McComiskey and her partner Tony Kucharczyk used to live a 30-minute drive apart in two cities on either side of a bridge - Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in Canada and the Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in the United States.

JOYCE MCCOMISKEY: We're referred to as the Twin Saults.

JACOBS: For people living in the Twin Saults, crossing the border was a part of everyday life - to get gas, groceries or to visit loved ones.

TONY KUCHARCZYK: It almost is like there isn't two different countries at one point, you know, back then.

JACOBS: Then the pandemic hit. And last March, Canada and the U.S. imposed travel restrictions at first for 30 days, then extended month after month. Air travel is still permitted in one direction. Canadians can still fly to the U.S., which McComiskey finally did in July.

MCCOMISKEY: I just couldn't handle it anymore. I just couldn't fathom August coming and not having seen him.

JACOBS: But it wasn't easy. She had to fly to Toronto, then take another flight.

MCCOMISKEY: Toronto to Detroit. Tony driving the 10-hour roundtrip to Detroit to pick me up to avoid another airport and another flight.

JACOBS: The cost went from a $4 bridge toll to more than $700. And each time she's made the trip, she's had to do Canada's strict two-week quarantine when she got back. It's enforced with police spot checks and steep fines.

Over the summer and fall, Canada created some exemptions for family members to enter the country with the same quarantine. Devon Weber, an American living in Montreal, started a group for families that's pushing the U.S. to do the same at the land border. Busy work schedules and extra costs mean many relatives haven't seen each other all year.

DEVON WEBER: There's a human cost to this that needs to be thought about, that needs to be addressed, that needs to be acknowledged in a way that the administration is not acknowledging.

JACOBS: While Canada's created family exemptions, it's also added new obstacles, says Edward Alden, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. These include expensive COVID tests and hotel stays. But these rules don't apply to most people crossing the border these days, at least by land. More than 90% are exempt workers like truck drivers or medical staff commuting to work.

EDWARD ALDEN: This is closing the, you know, barn door after the horse is gone.

JACOBS: He thinks the U.S.-Canada border measures should be treated more like state lockdowns, including setting metrics for an eventual reopening.

ALDEN: Border restrictions are likely to reduce spread in the same way that closing restaurants and keeping people from congregating indoors will reduce spread. But they're temporary measures that are damaging, and therefore you want to have some system in place to begin easing those controls as the situation improves.

JACOBS: Still, public sentiment in Canada is overwhelmingly against relaxing the border restrictions with the U.S., which Canadians see as having mismanaged the pandemic. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Joyce McComiskey says friends have shunned her over her trips to Michigan. Other families hide visits. This month, Kucharsky, her partner, finally got a long enough break from his job in construction to come to Canada under the family exemption. But they have no end in sight to their long separations.

MCCOMISKEY: He'll go home on Sunday, and it's going to be horrifying because we still don't know.

JACOBS: If there's no change, she plans to fly again in May. She sets a timer on her phone that ticks down the months before her next visit. She says it gives her something to look forward to. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "BOOK OF INGENIOUS DEVICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.