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Fully vaccinated Americans will be able to visit Canada for nonessential travel starting Aug. 9, the Canadian government announced this week. But it remains unclear when the United States will let Canadians come south — a fact that is being greeted with mixed emotions in northwest Montana. 

The U.S.-Canada border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The 16-month shutdown has had a heavy impact on border towns like Eureka, which have come to rely on dollars from visiting Canadians, some of whom own second homes in Lincoln and Flathead counties. 

Travelers entering Canada will need to present proof that they have received a full dose of one of the vaccines approved for use in Canada, including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Visitors will have to use the ArriveCAN app to submit their vaccination and traveling information. 

State Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said Tuesday he is excited to see the border open to Americans, but he said Lincoln County’s economy will only get back to normal when Canadians can freely come south. 

“We’re at max capacity in Whitefish, and the border isn’t even open yet.”

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld

“The Canadians have extended a hand to us and I hope we extend it back,” Cuffe said. “I hope this is a step forward in the right direction.” 

State and local officials have been pressuring the Biden administration for months to loosen border restrictions with Canada, and those calls are sure to increase now that Canada has loosened its own restrictions. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale have all called for the border to be fully reopened. 

For years, summer brought an influx of Canadian visitors to northwest Montana, and it wasn’t uncommon for Alberta license plates to equal the number of Montana plates between Memorial Day and Labor Day (for Canadians, Victoria Day and Labour Day). While border towns like Eureka have been considerably quieter the last year and a half, the nearby Flathead Valley has been as busy as ever with American tourists flooding the area. Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld worries that if the border does soon open to Canadians, it will only exacerbate the community’s challenges. 

“We’re at max capacity in Whitefish, and the border isn’t even open yet,” he said Tuesday. 

This summer, the Flathead’s hospitality sector has been pushed to its limits, due in part to a combination of a record number of visitors, a worker shortage and a housing crisis. In recent days, restaurants have had to close because they didn’t have enough workers, and those that are open are often operating at capacity. 

On Monday night, one restaurant in downtown Columbia Falls posted a sign on the front door stating: “We may periodically have to pause kitchen service due to overcapacity concerns. When building reaches fire regulations occupancy, we will have to turn away patrons. Sorry for the inconvenience.” 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.