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

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

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

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.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Health Canada has reversed course on home test kits for COVID-19, saying it will now review applications for such devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Employee at Bethany CollegeSide in Red Deer tests positive for COVID-19

An employee at a Red Deer continuing care facility has tested positive… Continue reading

The Government of Alberta has identified 1,828 new cases and 15 new COVID-19-related deaths, which brings the provincial death toll to 590. (File photo)
Alberta identifies 1,828 new COVID-19 cases on Friday

Central zone has 1,251 active cases

Higher sales of cannabis helped Canadian farmers come out in the green. (Black Press Media File)
Drumheller RCMP lay charge for unlawfully distributing cannabis

A joint forces investigation involving the AGLC investigation team partnered with Drumheller… Continue reading

Three weapons have been seized and four people are facing charges following a police operation in central Alberta. (Photo contributed by RCMP)
RCMP, Lacombe Police seize loaded guns, arrest four people

Four people have been arrested and multiple prohibited firearms are off the… Continue reading

The Salvation Army's 2020 Christmas Kettle Campaign includes a new $5 tap feature for pandemic-friendly donations. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Salvation Army officers safe, touchless options for Kettle donation this year

The Salvation Army in Red Deer needs help. Kettle donations are needed… Continue reading

Dan Cochrane, senior pastor at CrossRoads Church. Contributed photo
CrossRoads Church closes its doors for two weeks after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

CrossRoads Church made the decision to cancel in-house services for two weeks… Continue reading

Montreal Alouettes' Michael Sam is set to make his pro football debut as he warms up before the first half of a CFL game against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. Sam became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes after being released by St. Louis, but abruptly left after playing one game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Study finds Canada a “laggard” on homophobia in sports

Study finds Canada a “laggard” on homophobia in sports

Canada's Kadeisha Buchanan (3) and Mexico's Jacqueline Ovalle (11) battle for the ball during a CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying soccer match Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Edinburg, Texas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Delcia Lopez
Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan named Canadian Women’s Player of the Year

Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan named Canadian Women’s Player of the Year

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris celebrates his touchdown against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the first half of the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. Running back Andrew Harris, who was instrumental in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers ending their Grey Cup drought in 2019, tops the CFL team's list of potential free agents. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Grey Cup MVP, top Canadian Harris among Winnipeg Blue Bombers potential free agents

Grey Cup MVP, top Canadian Harris among Winnipeg Blue Bombers potential free agents

24Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet (23) goes up for a shot agains the Boston Celtics during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.. Watching Connor McDavid let a slapshot fly or Fred VanVleet sink a deep three can be a salve to the soul of a sports fan run down by the difficult realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mark J. Terrill
Bubbles are best: experts say return of sports risky as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Bubbles are best: experts say return of sports risky as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall (10) scrambles past Texas State's Nico Ezidore (95) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in San Marcos, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chuck Burton
BYU presents tough challenge for Chanticleers, Canadian Makonzo this weekend

BYU presents tough challenge for Chanticleers, Canadian Makonzo this weekend

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, arrives at B.C. Supreme Court to attend a hearing, in Vancouver, on Friday, November 27, 2020. The U.S. Department of Justice is refusing to comment on media reports that its lawyers are seeking a plea deal of sorts with Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
PM won’t confirm reports U.S. Justice Department seeking plea deal with Meng Wanzhou

PM won’t confirm reports U.S. Justice Department seeking plea deal with Meng Wanzhou

Alek Minassian is shown in a handout photo from his LinkedIn page. A psychiatrist retained by the defence will testify for a fifth consecutive day today at the trial for the man behind Toronto's van attack. Dr. Alexander Westphal says Alek Minassian does not truly understand the moral wrongfulness of killing 10 people, but says criminal responsibility is a legal opinion, not a psychiatric one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
‘I know what I did was morally wrong,’ Alek Minassian told psychiatrist, court hears

‘I know what I did was morally wrong,’ Alek Minassian told psychiatrist, court hears

A look at what provinces and territories have said about COVID-19 vaccine plans

A look at what provinces and territories have said about COVID-19 vaccine plans

Most Read