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U.S. lifting border restrictions; duty free stores hope business will recover after pandemic challenges

Posted on June 1, 2023 by Ryan Dahlman

By Delon Shurtzn

Southern Alberta Newspapers

When the Canada-U.S. border closed its doors in March 2020 to all but essential travellers, the Carway Duty Free Store at the border south of Cardston was forced to do the same.

Without traffic heading to the U.S. there just wasn’t any business, and the store shut its doors and laid off half a dozen employees.

Nearly 20 months later, in November of 2021, the border was finally opened, and so was the store, but business was slow to pick up. Now, a year-and-a-half later, the store is still feeling the impact of the border closure and the various restrictions that have lingered ever since.

“It has definitely impacted us a lot,” says Anna Holt, manager of the Carway store. “The store was completely shut down.”

Summer business which saw up to 150 customers a day, dropped to nothing, and business is still about half what it was before the border was slammed shut.

Duty free stores across Canada, including the duty free store at the Coutts border, are experiencing the same problem, but they are hopeful business will pick up substantially starting today when travellers will be accepted into the U.S. without proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, and other conditions are lifted, returning the border to a more normal pre-pandemic state.

There looms, however, the possibility it could happen again, and that has prompted the Frontier Duty Free Association to demand governments on both sides of the border never again restrict travel.

The FDFA, which is the national association representing Canada’s 32 land border duty free shops, is also calling on Canada’s MPs to be pro-active voices for the border communities and their unique businesses as they move forward in a post-pandemic environment.

Barbara Barrett, executive director of FDFA, says closing borders on the ground while allowing air travel, was also wrong.

“While we are thrilled to see this final restriction at the border lifted, the impacts of the land border closure and restrictions are deep and long-lasting on border communities and business like ours,” Barrett says. “We urge both governments to never let this happen again and to take measures to protect our precious border and the ability for our border communities to thrive.”

Over the last three years, the U.S. and Canadian governments closed the border, changed border policies, and only began to remove restrictions in a very slow and disjointed way, Barrett says.

Canada ultimately lifted its vaccine requirement on Oct. 1, 2022, while the U.S. continued to require proof of COVID vaccination for Canadians heading south. The land border closure happened while air travelers flew easily by air between the two countries.

Restrictions at the border stalled recovery for businesses at the border like the land border duty free stores that depend solely on the flow of traffic over the Canada-U.S. border. FDFA recently released a study showing a sales decrease still at an average 42-per-cent decline com pared to pre-pandemic. The export stores were shuttered for nearly two years and were down more than 95 per cent in sales during the full closure of the land border for 20 months.

“We did our part to keep Canadians and Americans safe at the land border,” FDFA president Tania Lee said during a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday. “Now, we need action to ensure our businesses can thrive again and assurance that we will never endure such a border closure and restrictions again.”

Lethbridge MP Rachael Thomas says fully opening the border was the chief concern raised by Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, when he met with U.S. President Joe Biden in March.

“It’s good to finally see a response,” Thomas says. “There are millions of good, honourable, and hard-working people who have been discriminated against by the U.S. government without reasonable justification. To have the border fully open again means goods can flow and regular business practices can resume. This is good news for our region and for all of Canada.”

Holt, however, still has concerns. She notes although the Canadian side of the Carway border is open between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., the U.S. side is only open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. even though it used to stay open later. That restricts a lot of traffic, Holts points out, and for a duty free store, travel means everything.

Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce CEO, Cyndi Bester said she have heard from people who did not fit the requirements to go down to the United States, that they have adjusted their lifestyle to stay in Canada.

“From an economic point of view, going down to the states right now it’s not cheaper to buy things, our dollar is not very strong compared to what it used to be, so that quick trip down to the states to buy a bunch of stuff will cost you the same as if you purchased it in Canada,” said Bester.

She said from a shop local perspective, it is a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

“I guess good timing that is just before May long weekend to see what traffic doesn’t stay local, so maybe after May long weekend seeing some of those numbers, if there is a huge influx then that would be evaluated a little closer, but I think we need to go through a couple of our long weekends in July and August to really see what that traffic is,” said Bester.

– with files from Alejandra Pulido-Guzman

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