By Brooks Johnson

DULUTH – When vaccinated Canadians are allowed to drive into the U.S. for any reason next month, it will mark a long-awaited reunion for the communities and businesses along Minnesota's northern border.

"We consider ourselves sister cities with Fort Frances [Ontario], and we balance each other out," said Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. "There are certain community services, like a movie theater and bowling alley, we can't afford to maintain on our own. We have Menards, they have Walmart."

"While the commerce aspect is important," she added, "we're also looking forward to a full community reconnection, a reunification."

Canadian travelers with proof of COVID-19 vaccination can enter the U.S. by land starting on an unspecified date in November, the Department of Homeland Security announced late Tuesday. With nonessential travel closed off since March 2020, it will be the end of a 20-month separation.

American travelers to Canada have been allowed to cross with proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test since August; the U.S. won't require tests for ground travel but will require them for foreign nationals flying into the country.

"It wasn't very balanced of us to have this delay, but better late than never," Heibel said.

For the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, which sits 6 miles from the border on Hwy. 61, "November can't come soon enough," said marketing director Todd Ford. "We've been missing our Canadian friends and customers for way too long now."

The casino and lodge in the northeast corner of the state gets a majority of its business from Canadians, many of them traveling from the largest city on Lake Superior — Thunder Bay, Ontario.

"We have seen a lot more visitation from guests downstate this year, but we could never replace the Canadians," Ford said. "It's going to be a fun reunion, and we're looking forward to it."

The Canadian shoreline of Rainy Lake is less than 1,000 feet from Cantilever Distillery and Hotel in Ranier, Minn. — but few across the border have had a chance to sip spirits there since it opened in early 2020.

"We're very excited about it — I feel there's going to be an influx, and it's a great opportunity to welcome back our Canadian friends during a slower time of year," said General Manager Ed Gackley. "And there are so many people with family on both sides of the border."

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview she has worked "obsessively" on the issue, which she said has disproportionately impacted border states.

"This will be a game-changer for resorts Up North that have traditionally relied on a lot of visits from Canadians," the Minnesota Democrat said. "This will also be timely for holiday gatherings. … We've had so many friends and relatives separated."

Northern Minnesota Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber, both Republicans, also have been urging the Biden administration to loosen restrictions.

"I am so glad these businesses — that have gone through two devastating tourist seasons — can finally start recovering," Fischbach said in a statement. "I look forward to welcoming Canadians back to Minnesota very soon."

The high rate of Canadian vaccination — 73% of Canadians are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with 57% of Americans — helped persuade the Biden administration to relax border restrictions.

As eight-hour waits to drive into Canada through International Falls demonstrated in August, there may still be some wrinkles to iron out.

"We know there's going to be growing pains in opening up car borders and checking for vaccination," Klobuchar said. "It's about getting the policy started and the implementation."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496