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The U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada have re-opened to vaccinated individuals

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Let the reunions begin. After almost 20 months, the U.S. has reopened its borders to travelers who are vaccinated against COVID-19. And that includes its long land borders with Canada and Mexico, where crossings have been sharply restricted during this pandemic.

We're joined now by two reporters who are at U.S. borders, both along Mexico and Canada. Kendal Blust, of member station KJZZ, is in Nogales, Ariz. And Mikaela Lefrak, with Vermont Public Radio, spent the day on the States' border with Canada. Welcome to both of you.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: Hi.

KENDAL BLUST, BYLINE: Thanks.

CHANG: (Laughter) So Kendal, let's start with you. Can you just describe what the scene's like where you're at?

BLUST: Yeah. You know, right now, both foot and vehicle traffic has slowed to what I would call sort of a constant trickle. But last night leading up to midnight, there were long lines at the border, at several ports all along the U.S.-Mexico border. And my colleague who's reporting in Nogales, Sonora, just on the Mexican side here, said there was a mile-long line of cars with hours to go still before restrictions were officially lifted.

Here's a little tape of what that sounded like. The mayors from the two cities held a joint press conference right at the border to mark the occasion, and a loudspeaker in Mexico announced this first car making its way across just after, you know, the restrictions lifted at midnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BLUST: So at the border crossing itself, vendors were walking between cars. On the northern side of the border, there were people waiting to cheer on the first crossers. They were holding up signs and clapping as they drove into town.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love it.

BLUST: Yeah. They hung up this giant banner welcoming visitors back. It was really, like, almost a carnival-like moment. And my colleague, Murphy Woodhouse, spoke with Jesus Cordoba as he waited in line. He drove all the way up from Hermosillo, which is about three hours south of the border, with his wife to meet their new granddaughter for the first time in person.

CHANG: Wow.

JESUS CORDOBA: (Speaking Spanish).

BLUST: He said, you know, it's really hard only seeing their grandkids through a screen and not being able to hold them and talk to them. And now, they're finally on their way up. And I think the reason, for so many of us, that this is so powerful is that we can relate to being cut off from the people and places we love during the pandemic. And, you know...

CHANG: Absolutely.

BLUST: We missed birthdays and holidays and weddings and funerals. But a lot of us had that moment of being able to hug our loved ones again or sit down to a meal together. And for so many people crossing the border right now, this is that moment.

CHANG: Wow. What a scene. That is so heartwarming. I want to just head up north to Mikaela. Is what Kendal describing sort of what it also looks like on the Canadian border?

LEFRAK: It is a very different atmosphere up here. I witnessed no parties.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh.

LEFRAK: I - yeah. I went to the border crossing at Derby Line here in Vermont. And there was a slow trickle of people waiting to go through Customs and Border Patrol, but the highway was pretty empty. The welcome center was completely empty.

Now, it is a Monday in a quiet part of the state, so it's not entirely out of the ordinary. But a big reason for the lack of a crowd at the border seems to be this PCR test that the Canadian government requires Canadians to get when they reenter the country. And it could be a pretty inconvenient test to get here, and it can also cost a couple hundred dollars.

But I did find one Canadian who has been itching to come to the U.S. for months. His name is Theo Bih, and he's in flight school here in Vermont and lives just over the border in Canada. And he told me that he was stuck in Taiwan for much of the pandemic, so dealing with Customs is kind of old hack for him at this point.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh.

THEO BIH: I was here for almost - more than an hour (laughter). Yeah, crossing the border is always like this. Yeah, it's never guaranteed. So yeah, just see how things goes (ph).

LEFRAK: Now, it was a bit hard to hear there, but Bih said that he was at Customs for more than an hour. And he's hoping to get back into Canada later, and he's hoping it's going to be an easier process. They told him that he doesn't need to get that PCR test because his flight school is essential travel. Now, if everything goes smoothly, he's hoping to start coming down here two to three times a week.

CHANG: OK. Well, Mikaela, beyond friends and family and other loved ones and people who are in flight school and have been cut off from the rest of the region for almost, like, two years now, I imagine reopening these land crossings has got to be huge for local economies, too, right?

LEFRAK: Right, it's huge here. Lots of the border towns in Vermont are really reliant on the ski industry in particular. Now, in a typical year, a major portion of their business comes from Canadians buying annual ski passes and renting hotel rooms and Airbnbs.

I spoke to Susan Jones today. She's a manager at the Jay country store, and that's right near a big ski resort in the area.

SUSAN JONES: Well, a lot of Canadians just from north of the border have second homes here. And, you know, they come down here to recreate. They shop for groceries while they're here. And, you know, a lot of our neighbors are Canadians.

BLUST: This is Kendal You know, that's so true here at the U.S.-Mexico border, too. There's been a huge economic toll on the U.S. side, businesses that depend on Mexican shoppers. And, you know, here in Nogales, Ariz., downtown businesses, so many have closed down. Others are just opening for a couple of hours a day or a couple days a week just to keep from shuttering. And, you know, even 60 miles away in Tucson, the lack of Mexican shoppers was a big concern.

By some estimates, Mexican visitors spend upwards of a billion dollars in Tucson and more than 2.5 billion across the state each year at malls and restaurants and hotels. On the other hand, some Mexican businesses have actually been thriving as Mexican shoppers started to spend more money locally. So there's a lot of excitement on all sides about restrictions being lifted.

CHANG: Excitement, but I gather some uncertainty, too, right?

BLUST: Yeah, absolutely. You know, on the north side, some are worried that shoppers won't actually come back, that they've changed their habits. And in Mexico, the worry is that the newfound customers will go running back to Arizona, to the United States.

Still, when I talked to Mayor Donald Huish of Douglas, Ariz., which is across the border from Agua Prieta, a couple of days ago, he said he really hopes that people who don't know the border region will recognize that for so many people in his and other border communities, this moment is really about reconnecting a community that's been divided.

DONALD HUISH: I think those things are the most exciting part of it for me. Yeah, I'm going to appreciate the extra dollars in our city coffers, don't get me wrong, but that family and friends is big.

CHANG: It is big. OK, so it sounds like huge reunion parties happening on the southwest border, but not so much on the U.S.-Canada line, right, Mikaela?

LEFRAK: That's right. The party is on hold for now because, like we said, Canadians going into the U.S. have to take this expensive test to get back into their country. So until that situation changes, it's pretty unlikely that the number of Canadians traveling here, at least into Vermont by car, is going to go back to what it was before the pandemic.

CHANG: That's member station reporters Mikaela Lefrak of Vermont Public Radio and KJZZ's Kendal Blust. Thanks to both of you.

LEFRAK: Thank you.

BLUST: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG AND SICK SONG, "DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.