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Montana officials irked with border closure extension
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Montana officials irked with border closure extension

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Friday announced the country's borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed for another month, pushing the new re-opening date to Sept. 21.

The border closure extension came the day before the borders were set to reopen. The Department of Homeland Security said in its announcement Friday the extension was put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant continues to fester.

Bonnie Nickol, who runs Quilt with Class in Shelby, said Friday she was "absolutely" frustrated with the continued closure. Shelby often serves as a incremental stop for Canadians traveling to Great Falls. Since the closure in March 2020, Nickol said her business is down 30% without Canadian foot traffic.

"I have a lot of customers from the Lethbridge area," Nickol said in a phone interview Friday. "Not only do they shop here, a lot of them come here for weekends or for a couple days, buying groceries and gas and going to Great Falls."

Nickol is thankful, she said, to be the only employee at Quilt with Class; she hasn't had to entertain the possibility of laying off any workers.

"Thirty percent is a pretty big hit to take," she said. 

Montana's U.S. Senators both dissented from President Joe Biden's decision to keep the border closed. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, urged the Biden administration to reverse the decision.

“I disagree with the Biden Administration’s decision to keep the northern border closed. Montanans depend on cross-border trade and travel to meet their bottom lines and keep their businesses afloat as well as to stay in contact with family and friends in both countries who haven’t seen each other in person for more than a year," Tester said in a statement released Friday.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, was more critical against Biden, lashing the Democratic administration for keeping the Canadian border closed while "the southern border has remained wide open to illegal drugs and illegal immigrants," although the extension also includes a continued closure on the U.S.-Mexico border. Daines introduced the "Restoring Northern Border Travel Act" with New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik in June to reopen the U.S. border to Canadians. Congress has taken no further action on the bill beyond its introduction.

“President Biden has once again let down Montana families and businesses. His refusal to open the northern border is hurting our economy, jobs and border communities," Daines said in a released statement. “Since President Biden won’t do what’s right for Montana, it’s time Congress pass my bill to reopen the northern border immediately.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, visited Shelby and posted a video to social media with a local tire shop owner who said they've lost 20% of their business due to the closure. 

“With this out-of-touch decision, President Biden has dealt another devastating blow to hardworking Montana families on the Hi-Line. I’m calling on the Biden administration to safely, fully, and immediately reopen the border for trade and travel,” Gianforte said in an emailed statement Friday.

The current closure is not asymmetrical, as the Canadian border opened its ports to fully vaccinated Americans earlier this month. Commercial and essential travel has still been allowed over the U.S.-Canadian border, but the northern neighbors welcoming Americans back offered a chance for family and friends sequestered for the last year and a half to reunite in Canada. U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. falls under the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol definition of essential travel. 

The pandemic has made a comeback with average daily cases jumping sixfold since the beginning of July. Medical experts gathered for a virtual press conference Thursday to make a plea for Montanans to get vaccinated. The delta variant's surge has been especially pronounced in Flathead County, which shares a border with Canada and on Friday had 708 of the state's 3,473 cases, or roughly 1 in 5 active cases in the state.

Shelby was one of Montana's first communities to suffer a fatal outbreak when the coronavirus touched down at a clinic and assisted living facility there early in the pandemic. Toole County had a 41% percent vaccination rate on Friday, and 10 active cases, according to the state's tally. Nickol, at the quilt shop in Shelby, said Friday that early episode dealt the community a reality check, but people have let their guard down.

"I think at the beginning people took it more seriously because of what happened," Nickol said. "But I think, just like everywhere else, it's become politicized. And to be perfectly honest, I think people are just tired of it."

Montana State News Bureau
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