Along Maine's border with Canada, communities on either side are closely connected, historically, culturally, economically. But the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily severed that connection, as the governments of the two countries have suspended nonessential travel along the border.
As part of Maine Public’s series "Deep Dive: Coronavirus," Robbie Feinberg visited one border town to see how lives and livelihoods are being affected.
Gary Theriault hops off his motorcycle and walks into the Madawaska Tastee-Freez, a roadside ice cream and takeout stand just a short hop from the Canadian border. As he waits for his milkshake, Theriault peers across the St. John River towards Edmundston, New Brunswick, less than a mile away. He says these communities have long been connected, by their mutually dependent economies, and shared heritage.
“My mother was born in Edmundston, which is right across the border. My father was born in Van Buren. So half my relatives are over there, the other half are over here,” Theriault says. “So there's a lot of back and forth, visiting aunts, uncles, grandparents. It was always a back-and-forth with the border.”
Over the past half century, Madawaska has seen its population gradually diminish as the local paper mill has been forced to lay off workers. But local residents say the town has maintained a symbiotic relationship with Edmundston. Americans go across to see family, get a haircut, or gamble at the casino. Canadians, meanwhile, often come over for cheaper gas and milk, then stay and visit local shops and restaurants.
But that came to a halt two months ago, when the United States and Canada blocked non-essential travel across the border, and have since extended the restrictions until at least late June.
And today, the normally steady flow of cars passing along the Madawaska-Edmundston International Bridge has slowed to a trickle. Theriault says he is still allowed to go across at times to buy materials for his garage door business. But other visits, to see family, for example, are prohibited.
"I was crossing every day. I was residing there, and working here. Then when the decision came that they were closing the borders — because my business is probably 95 percent in the states — we made the decision at that time to stay here until things iron themselves out," Theriault says. "We're frustrated, on one hand. But on the other hand, you always have to consider, for the safety purpose, we got to do what we have to do."
"The struggle is real, obviously. We see them struggling. We hear of it," says Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard. He says the border restrictions have had a big impact on local shops and stores, as many rely on Canadian visitors for a large chunk of their sales.
"One could almost assume that the revenue from Canada has basically been wiped out here during this period."
The impact has been particularly acute at gas stations and convenience stores. Less than a mile from the local border crossing, Tim Lausier has run Bob's Service Center with his sister for about 25 years.
"Probably 60 percent of my business is Canadians. So when they closed the bridge down...we let our workers go. So it's just my sister and I working the store now,” Lausier says. “And it's been like that for two months. And it looks like it'll be like that for another month. And I've lost, probably, 2,500 people coming through the door a week."
Lausier says he understands the reasons behind the border restrictions, but he worries that even if the border does reopen soon, some of his regular shoppers will still be hesitant to cross.
"Even when they do come back, I don't think we're going to get all our customers back. Because they'll be more strict at the border. And people are going to be scared to come over here. I don't think it'll be back to normal. It might take five or six years, I think."
And while some in Madawaska say federal and state restrictions are important to protect public health during the pandemic, others would like to see them loosened even more quickly.
Business owner Vincent Frallicciardi says he hasn't seen his wife and cat for nearly three months because of the border closures. And with reported cases of COVID-19 being so low in both Aroostook County and New Brunswick, he believes it is time to allow more visitors to frequent the area, safely.
"It's going to be people from the Boston area, people from outside the area. People from Canada coming in for a week to go do what they want to do,” he says. “The hotels, stuff like that. It's hard. We need to tap in to people outside the state of Maine to bring the resources in to keep our way of life going."
Federal officials have said the border will remain closed to nonessential travel until at least June 21. But administrators in Madawaska have taken a few steps that they are hoping will help local businesses pay their bills in the meantime.
In April, the town partnered with the local chamber of commerce to sell $60,000 worth of gift cards good at certain local businesses affected by the pandemic. Chamber Director Sharon Boucher says residents only had to pay for half the value of each card, with the town paying the other half.
"It gives [businesses] that money in hand to be able to pay the bills that are coming in while they're not open,” Boucher says. “Is it going to cover all their bills? No. But it helps."
Boucher says the first round of certificates went on sale at 8 a.m. and were snatched up in just a few hours, causing some chaos at the Chamber.
"Calls were dropping because there was just too much activity,” Boucher says. “People were getting frustrated and angry. So we had people outside, at the door, wanting to come in, putting their orders in the mailbox.”
While the gift card initiative was chaotic at first, Boucher says the response was encouraging. She says the overwhelming support was yet another sign that in the face of difficult challenges, the people and businesses of Madawaska are resilient and will fight to stay afloat.
“We will come out of this okay. Yeah, we're going to hurt for a little while. But we're going to come out of this okay.”
This story is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.”