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Caught between two countries, a Minnesota resort area still feels the lockdown blues

ANGLE INLET, Minnesota – On the Northwest Corner, a small patch of Minnesota connected to the rest of the United States only by water, it feels like the coronavirus shutdown never ended.

But empty cabins, marinas without boats and fishing guides without work are not the result of a lockdown imposed by the governor of Minnesota. They also do not indicate an acute fear of the virus. (Many residents are already vaccinated and hardly anyone wears a mask.) Instead, in the walleye’s second season of the pandemic, U.S. businesses on the Angle remain largely cut off from their U.S. customers due to a geographic oddity, a foreign government and a gravel road through Manitoba.

“It’s starting to be very oppressive,” said Lisa Goulet, who, along with her husband, Jason, owns Angle Outpost Resort, where there were no guests at the start of last week. “I don’t know if I want to live like this. I don’t know if it’s really worth it.

Getting to the Angle, which has around 100 full-time residents and an economy made up of nothing but tourism, has always taken an extra mile. There is only one road and driving from mainland Minnesota requires a 41 mile detour through rural Canada. Those who want to avoid crossing the border must charter a seaplane or take a boat through the olive-colored waves on Lake of the Woods, which can be dangerous in a small fishing boat and cost at least $ 150 round trip. in a professional pilot. . An ice road that offered a two-month respite from border headaches has long melted.

Over the decades, the Angle’s small family resorts have won the loyalty of American visitors who tolerated the drudgery of customs clearance in Canada and then the United States, so that they could enjoy world-class fishing, flavored with pine. forests and a level of seclusion offered by a few other places in the Lower 48.

But this solitude, more evident than ever, is no longer such an asset.

Canada’s continued Covid ban on American pleasure travelers – even those whose final destination is in the United States – has crippled Angle’s businesses, disrupted family traditions, and eroded decades of cross-border goodwill from the United States. in a way that seems likely to reverberate long after the pandemic. As calls from the Minnesota congressional delegation for a tourism exemption on the Angle go unheeded, resort owners and fishing guides seek part-time jobs, canceling another summer of bookings and, in some cases, rethinking their relationship with a foreign country that they can see from their docks.

“I didn’t think Canada would ever take that stance,” said Paul Colson, whose family has owned Jake’s Northwest Angle since 1945, where the boats are empty this spring and the cabins are rented out. “You know, it’s not tenable. It does not make sense. Does not follow any science. “

The northwest corner, which owes its existence to treaties negotiated when maps of the region were imprecise, has already been the subject of diplomatic entanglements. Canada and Britain tried unsuccessfully to buy the region from the United States in the 1800s. And just a generation ago, a trade dispute known as the “Walleye War” erupted over whether US resort guests could keep fish caught in Canadian waters, which inspired discussions about secession.

But in a place where the American and Canadian flags can be spotted along the road, and where many people have friends and relatives on both sides of the line, this latest dispute is different. More personal. More painful.

The long permeable border suddenly hardened. The few visitors who still arrive are no longer permitted to fish in Canadian waters, an area that many anglers prefer. And compromise ideas – an international travel corridor, perhaps, or a pilot car to escort tourists to the Angle without coming into contact with Canadians – have yet to gain traction. U.S. State Department officials declined to speak specifically about the Angle and did not say whether they had pressed Canada for concessions there.

Every day that passes costs more money to business owners. In an area where summer weather is fleeting and snow showers can appear even in late May, there is little time left to save this tourist season.

“This is absolutely urgent: I don’t think everyone can survive a second summer without business,” said Rep. Michelle Fischbach, a Republican who represents Angle in Congress and who sent a letter this month to Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, calling for restrictions to be relaxed.

Although Canada recently relaxed its rules to allow full-time Angle residents to travel to mainland Minnesota for groceries and other essentials without producing a negative Covid-19 test, tourists and residents of Angle part-time, including those who own cabins but only stay in them during the summer, are still not allowed.

A senior Canadian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive and rapidly evolving issue, said that country’s officials were sympathetic to the plight of Angle’s businesses and expressed optimism. on loosening restrictions on travelers vaccinated later this summer. . Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, said in a statement that she had discussed the Northwest Corner with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, but Ms Hillman gave no timeline on when this border could reopen more completely.

“With the Angle, given the small numbers you’re dealing with, I think there’s a reluctance to consider making exceptions,” Ms. Klobuchar, a Democrat, said of the Canadiens. “And I really think they have to look at this in a unique way.”

Now is the time when the Angle comes to life. In a typical year, locals say, traffic jams would form in Young’s Bay Marina and visitors would take photos next to the brightly painted sign indicating the Angle’s status as the uppermost point. north of the 48 contiguous states.

But there’s no waiting for a table these days at Jerry’s Bar and Restaurant, the Angle’s only restaurant, and no one is lining up to use the phone booths where visitors crossing the border have to. report their location to customs officials. Some stations have not had customers since the ice fishing season.

Across the Angle, where black bears and deer graze along dusty roads, locals talk about disrupted lives: missed mainland funerals, lost jobs, canceled travel plans. There is also a growing sense of helplessness, the feeling that no country cares enough about its predicament to do much about it.

“We have been forgotten; we were abandoned, ”said Doug Freitag, a retiree who looked after the cabins of neighbors who couldn’t visit, and whose wife lost her income as a cleaner at local stations. “The United States is not doing enough to give us our rights as citizens of free passage. Canadians treat us like we are a very unique group of people with whom they don’t really know how to deal.

When the United States and Canada decided last year to close the border to non-essential traffic, many people in Angle came out sympathetic, if not supportive. But as the shutdown spread from week to month, patience weakened.

“They’re just prolonging the problem, thinking they’re going to stop Covid,” said Andy Lundbohm, a fishing guide on the Angle for over 20 years who has undertaken more taxidermy work to make up for lost income. . Ms Klobuchar, Ms Fischbach and a few other US politicians have also pushed for a wider reopening of the border. However, many Canadians remain deeply skeptical about allowing more international travel, and local authorities have faced domestic pressure to keep the restrictions in place.

Part of the tension lies in the two countries’ very different approaches to the pandemic.

In the United States, businesses have reopened, domestic tourism has resumed, vaccines are plentiful, and with the number of cases plummeting, fully vaccinated Americans have been told they don’t need masks in most contexts. In other parts of Minnesota, including other parts of Lake of the Woods, which has more square miles of water across the two countries than Rhode Island has land, fishing stations are in full swing. boom.

But in Canada, which has far fewer cases per capita than in the United States, the recent virus outlook is less encouraging and trade restrictions have remained in place across much of the country. Manitoba has identified new cases at a faster rate than any other state or province, and the vaccination campaign in Canada has progressed much more slowly. Although about half of Americans and Canadians have received an initial dose of the vaccine, only about 5% of Canadians are fully immunized, compared to about 40% of Americans.

James Cudmore, a spokesperson for Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said in a statement that the increase in vaccinations made possible an eventual relaxation of regulations, but that “the decision on when and way to reopen the border will be taken in Canada. , with the best interests of Canadians as our top priority.

At the Angle Outpost Resort, where geese huddled by choppy water on a recent afternoon as Ms. Goulet mowed, it was already about to be another rough summer.

Bookings were on the decline, cancellations kept coming in and uncertainty over the date and reopening of the border made it difficult for customers to reschedule. Mr. Goulet was planning another trip to North Dakota, where he worked in construction to make up some of his lost income at the resort. And by a time when many Americans had returned to a relatively normal routine, the family had become exhausted trying to convince Canadian border guards that every trip to the mainland met the definition of most of this country.

“We are in a corral,” said Mr. Goulet. “Or a prison cell.”

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