Mayor of Niagara Falls hopes for ‘more meaningful step’ to allow for vaccinated U.S. tourists

Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Global News

The mayor of Niagara Falls says a forthcoming change in quarantine rules for Canadians from Ottawa is “a good step in the right direction,” but it’s just a “baby step” when it comes to much needed tourism dollars.

Jim Diodati told Global News that the federal government needs to take “a more meaningful step” that allows anyone fully vaccinated to cross borders, not just Canadians.

“If the vaccines do work, which we know they do, and if it really is the panacea, we want to encourage people and incentivize them to get their vaccines,” Diodati said.

“Let’s have a little bit of love and let us cross the border both ways.”

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The mayor suggests allowing Canadians to cross borders without the hassle of having to quarantine upon returning with a negative COVID-19 test, suggesting that it means thousands of dollars will likely go south and not be reciprocated by partners to the south.

“If we sit on our hands any longer, the U.S. is going to do it unilaterally,” said Diodati.

“What happens then? Canadians will be allowed into the U.S. to go spend hard earned money, but Americans won’t be allowed into our country to spend their money.”

On Monday, the federal government cleared the way for “fully vaccinated” Canadians with two doses to enter the country by land or air without having to quarantine — as long as they test negative for COVID-19.

The new rule is set to take effect on July 5 and applies only to people already eligible to travel to Canada, including citizens, permanent residents and people registered under the Indian Act.

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“This is the first phase of our precautionary approach to easing Canada’s border measures. At this time we are not opening up our borders any further,” Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental affairs, said at a press conference.

Diodati says the pandemic devastated Niagara Falls in 2020 with an estimated 32,000 (15.6 per cent) residents affected by job losses between February and June of last year.

Off and on shutdowns due to the pandemic last summer particularly hurt Niagara businesses since many follow what Diodati calls the ’80/20′ rule, in which 80 per cent of their money is made in 20 per cent of the year.

“So between the July 1st weekend and Labour Day weekend, that’s when the majority of money comes in that carries them through the shoulder season when it gets cold and the tourists aren’t here,” Diodati said.

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Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 14 million people typically travelled to Niagara Falls annually with 25 per cent coming from the U.S., representing 50 per cent of Niagara Falls’ tourism revenue.

To offset last year’s losses across Ontario, the Ford government injected $200 million in support programs last March in the hopes of revitalizing the province’s tourism and hospitality industry.

At a presser in Niagara Falls, Premier Doug Ford and Tourism Minister Lisa McLeod laid out details of a $100-million tourism and hospitality small business support grant program and a one-time $100 million Ontario tourism recovery program.

Brian Higgins, congressman representing portions of Erie and Niagara counties in New York state, says COVID-19 vaccines have changed the game in the U.S. and believes they’ve done the same in Canada.

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Both countries’ economies are ‘mutually dependent’ in Higgins’ eyes and he is hopeful of unilateral action to allow fully vaccinated Canadians to go to the U.S., and vice versa, without red tape.

“They have powerful immunity against giving or getting COVID, they should be able to cross the border,” said Higgins.

The congressman suggests reopening the border might prove to be beneficial for those who have not yet had a first or second dose since western New York has an abundance of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Folks in Canada who can’t get the vaccine should be able to come to western New York, get vaccinated and go back to Canada,” Higgins said.

“We are discarding, as medical waste, surplus vaccines because they’re not being used.”

Dr. Dionne Aleman from the University of Toronto who focuses on pandemic planning says fully opening the border “poses a more risky situation” since the U.S. statistically is still struggling with numbers that would be “commensurate with herd immunity.”

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As of Monday, 45.7 per cent of residents in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated, still below the estimated 70 to 80 per cent much of the medical community would recognize as reaching ‘herd immunity,” according to Aleman.

She also suggests having a large number of children aged between 2 and 12 not vaccinated also represents a threat. Although youth are less affected symptomatically by the virus, they still could spread it.

‘Until then, it does make sense to just take a slow and cautious approach’ Aleman said.

“Certainly the particular measures that are in place in Ontario and have been in place here for the past several months are open to criticism, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

In recent months, Ontario has been calling for the federal government to strengthen border enforcement, saying more infectious COVID-19 variants are threatening the province’s reopening plan.

In June, the Ford government sent a letter to its federal counterparts and outlined the province’s concerns about the risks of international travel during the third wave of the pandemic.

The letter called for a federal requirement that fully-vaccinated international travellers present proof of immunization and take a COVID-19 test on arrival. The province also asked for a strong quarantine regiment for those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

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“Ontario is committed to working with you to do whatever it takes to protect Canadians from the variant pandemic and future variants,” the ministers wrote.

“We urge you to heed these concerns and act now to finally secure our borders.”

Meanwhile, Diodati says time is already running out for tourism in Niagara Falls.

The mayor says it’s particularly frustration to watch the U.S. based ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat tour consistently at capacity on a daily basis while the Canadian equivalent “Hornblower” remains in dry dock.

I’m really hopeful that they’re going to realize that maybe they haven’t made the best decision at this point and they’re going to correct it.”

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