Congressman Pete Stauber hears from border businesses; talk of another border closure extension
When Bob Neuenschwander opened Border Bob’s — known as the last building in the U.S. — 42-years ago, the draw was location, location, location, he told Congressman Pete Stauber Friday.
But that was before mid-March, when due to COVID-19, the U.S.-Canada border — the longest undefended border in the world — closed for the first time ever, ending all but non-essential travel across the bridge, and stopping the traffic that passed by his business.
Border Bob’s caters to travelers of all kinds who enter and exit Canada via the International Falls-Fort Frances, specializing on the needs of anglers and bear hunters coming and going.
Now, the border is expected to remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21 amid spikes in confirmed coronavirus cases in large swaths of the U.S.
Businesses like his, may never recover, he said.
“I understand concern that Americans may bring virus with them,” Neuenschwander said of Canada. “But we are all part of North America. We have to do this together.”
Stauber agreed and said he would bring Neuenschwander’s concerns to the Canada-United States Interparliamentary Group, to which he was recently appointed. The group was created to exchange information and promote better understanding between U.S. and Canadian legislators on common programs and concerns. Stauber was appointed because a variety of industries within Minnesota, and Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, rely heavily on traffic between Canada and the U.S.
Stauber met with Neuenschwander, both wearing face masks for most of the meeting, and others to talk about the impact the border closing March 21 has had businesses which rely on border traffic.
Stauber said the draw of the border benefits businesses all along the corridor from the Twin Cities north.
Neuenschwander told Stauber his life, and that of others who live here, have been greatly touched in many ways by the border closure: His seasonal business has not opened for the season yet, and may never be able to recoup lost, and expected, revenue; his wife Kathleen’s 91-year old mother lives in Kenora and they cannot visit; and they haven’t visited their lake cabin there yet this summer.
“When we get through this, and we will, and we will be stronger, more resilient, and more self reliant than ever,” he said, adding much has been learned about the nation’s supply chain and health care deficiencies and how to fix them.
“When we know better we will do better,” Stauber said. “I will fight for what I think International Falls needs and I get that from people like Bob.”
Neuenschwander said it’s not just his business that is suffering.
“This whole thing for people that live along the border, and have a cabin in Canada, or for those Americans who own a small fishing camp or fly-in outpost operation — the government solution to them was ‘We will let you in, you have to stay at your camp for 14 days and then you can go ahead and rent to people from Canada,” Neuenschwander said. “Well, that ain’t going to happen.”
Opening Border Bob’s now wouldn’t pay for staff wages, he said. And the businesses currency exchange is obviously not needed now.
“We are running up debt and will be until the U.S.-Canada border is open again,” Neuenschwander wrote in a letter hand delivered to Stauber, and addressed to U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Steve Daines. “That most likely means we’ll run up debt for the next 10 months on top of the eight months since we last had income in 2019. Our small business cannot survive if we receive no help.”
Stauber said since the pandemic, the first four acts of Congress were bipartisan and provided financial assistance to the businesses.
And while Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have the ultimate decision, Stauber said, he hopes to ask the right questions and add to the information about the border closure.
Among the questions he said he will ask is why the U.S. is allowing Canadian anglers on border waters to fish in U.S. waters with a license and then return to Canada, but Canada is not allowing the same for Americans. He pointed to the suspension of Canada’s Remote Border Crossing Permit, which allows Americans to enter Canada by water and stay there, without passing through customs.
“That conversation needs to be had and I am the one to bring that forward from our group,” Stauber said. “I really want to push that July 21 date (the last official extension of closure), and there is some changes that mutually benefit both our countries and our businesses here.”
Neuenschwander pointed to the many other businesses in Borderland impacted by the closure. Anglers and bear hunters spend a lot of money in the community at clothing and gift stores, grocery and liquor stores, restaurants, and motels, and others, he said.
He told Stauber operating a business elsewhere in the state allows a 360-degree draw of customers; closure of the bridge has cut off half of his trade area, he said. And Voyageurs National Park also takes off another 90-degrees because there are no residents — seasonal or otherwise — to draw from.
Stauber said the border was shut down to avoid inundating hospitals if they were needed.
“We have more data now than we did four months ago,” he said. “As we do more testing in this global pandemic there are going to be more positive tests.”
Using good science like masks helps stop the spread, Stauber said. “We’ve done a really good job of flatting the curve,” he said. “But it will take some time until we all feel comfortable.”
Stauber said he wants more help for small businesses impacted by the pandemic.
“I’ve said rural America matters, and it matters more now than ever,” Stauber said. “Rural America is made up of small towns and small businesses and men and women in the small business community — it’s devastating for them. It’s important to get them some relief through PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), but also the (federal Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans – or) EIDL loans, Small Business Administration is ramping up in case they need it for survival.”
Stauber said 20-25 percent of small businesses may never again open.
“There is no better replacement than opening and having a healthy and functioning economy,” he said. “My job is to get out and listen, and if we want future investments, I will know how it should be tailored, because we don’t have a lot of time. Time is not on our side as far as economics and keeping small businesses open.
“I want to be able to open up responsibly in the ways we know how. I trust small business. International Falls and northern Minnesota matter. Small businesses matter.”