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FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — New data on crossings from Canada into the United States through Aroostook County states plainly what County residents already know — the COVID-19 pandemic has all but severed connections between the region and its Canadian neighbors that each has taken for granted for decades.
Many have families and friends on the other side of a border that had looked increasingly invisible, especially after trade restrictions were lifted in the 1990s. Yet, as both countries continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic — with no end in sight for the restrictions — The County-New Brunswick border is looking firmer than ever.
In regular times, the Aroostook County-New Brunswick border is porous most of the year. Many Canadians cross into Fort Fairfield from Perth-Andover to shop in Presque Isle, play golf at the Aroostook Valley Country Club or fill their gas tanks up at a lower price.
But that crossing has gone quiet since March 21, when the United States and Canada restricted most non-essential travel across the border to combat the spread of COVID-19. Although freight continues to cross, people are a much rarer sight.
In April 2020 — the first full month with restrictions in place — only 5,160 people came into the United States from Canada through Aroostook County’s seven ports of entry, according to data recently released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
That is a 96 percent decrease since April 2019, when 125,982 people crossed from Canada into Aroostook County during the same period. And it’s a 95 percent decrease since the much colder February 2020 — the last full month in which people were able to enter the United States unimpeded.
The numbers do not catalog unique travelers into the United States from Canada, only the total number of people crossing — those who cross twice would be counted twice. Additionally, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics does not compile data on crossings from the United States into Canada, though that number is undoubtedly lower because of the new restrictions.
Seven of Maine’s eleven ports of entry on the U.S-Canada border are in The County: Bridgewater, Fort Fairfield, Fort Kent, Houlton, Limestone, Madawaska and Van Buren. Other crossings downstate including Calais — Maine’s busiest port of entry with Canada — have also seen steep declines.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Michael McCarthy said that while the United States and Canada have restricted all non-essential travel, they have maintained supply chains — such as trucking — during the pandemic.
Indeed, while passengers arriving in cars, on foot and by train and bus have gone down more than 90 percent, the number of trucks — not including private pick-up trucks — going from Canada to The County has declined just 15 percent.
In Van Buren — which is connected to St. Leonard, New Brunswick, through the Maine Northern Railway — rail containers coming into the United States from Canada even went up 52 percent, from 598 in April 2019 to 907 in April 2020.
“While confronting the many operational challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, CBP remains steadfast in its commitment to facilitating lawful trade,” McCarthy said.
American citizens and permanent residents are still allowed to enter the United States from Canada. Those traveling across the border for work, emergency responses such as ambulances and public health purposes are also exempt from regulations
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has renewed restrictions on non-essential border crossings twice since it initiated the restrictions with Canada on March 21. On May 21, the prohibition was extended until June 22.
On Tuesday, June 9, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — citing unnamed officials — reported that both countries planned to extend travel restrictions after that date.
Both Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick — into which all County border crossings go — have so far been spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective countries. Both New Brunswick and Aroostook County have seen one death from COVID-19.
Canadian visitors spent nearly $1.2 billion in Maine in 2019, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
Yet, as borders across the world continue to be closed to contain spread, officials in both nations see the loss of economic activity from tourism as a small price to pay for lower infection numbers. COVID-19 has killed 115,000 in the United States and nearly 8,000 in Canada.
Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested