Friendliest of borders now tinged with tension

Concern over SARS along US-Canada boundary comes atop terror vigilance.

After the enactment of the North American Free Trade Act, many Canadians and Americans assumed their common border might be phased out, eventually disappearing. But after Sept. 11, the border patrol started looking in every car and asking questions.

Now, with Toronto fighting an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), US Customs agents are asking health questions as well.

The shift is reopening the debate over the nature of the US border with its largest trading partner, Canada.

"How do we manage this huge two way traffic of people and goods in a very rapidly changing world?" asks Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

If Niagara Falls is any indication, the US is still pretty far from a wide-open border. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is handing out health warnings in eight languages to people crossing from Canada to the US. INS agents are also questioning people about where they've been in Canada. In addition, some members of Congress are calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do a better job of training the border patrol to spot people who are ill.

The border debate is on despite the fact that earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it is safe to travel to Toronto, where SARS is blamed for more than 20 deaths.

Toronto residents are now trying to rally the world behind them - the same way people rallied to help New York after Sept. 11.

There is a lot at stake. The two nations have some of the most integrated economies in the world. Mr. Colgan estimates trade with the US represents about 20 to 25 percent of Canada's gross domestic product. And trade with Canada is 5 to 10 percent of the US GDP.

"Anything that seriously disrupts one country has an effect on both countries," he says.

At the falls

This can certainly be seen in the Niagara Falls area, which, with 14 million visitors a year, is an important source of tourist revenue for both countries. As soon as the SARS problem developed in Toronto, the Niagara Seneca Casino stopped accepting bus tours from Toronto. And one Canadian tour operator who says he normally runs six to seven buses a day to Niagara Falls is not running any right now, as foreign visitors cancel their trips.

On both sides of the falls, the mayors are trying to reassure tourists. "We have been working with the Canadians, and our health department feels we are taking the proper precautions," says Irene Elia, mayor of Niagara Falls, N.Y. But, she adds, "Certainly if you visit Canada, you should wash your hands frequently."

On the Canadian side, Mayor Wayne Thompson points out that there have been no reports of SARS in his community. "The World Health Organization lifting the ban should help turns things around," he says.

It's certainly going to be vital for the Canadians to calm Niagara tourists. Under construction is a 140,000-square-foot, $800 million casino. Mr. Thompson hopes this will make Niagara Falls into a year-round destination. "In the past, the weather has made this into a May-through-September destination," he says.

New hotels are sprouting up along the river: A Hyatt will be attached to the casino, and a Crowne Plaza is under contract. At least 3,000 rooms will be added to the area's accommodations.

In addition, a $40 million people-mover system is planned to take tourists to IMAX theaters, vistas along the falls, and the giant casino that will employ 5,500 people. And there are plans for shopping arcades and a big convention center. "There will be nothing like it in Canada," says Mr. Thompson.

But he is quick to add that "an open border is essential."

More than just tourist dollars

The open border goes beyond the economic, says Munroe Eagles, a professor of US-Canadian relations at the University at Buffalo-SUNY. In the "golden horseshoe" from Toronto to Rochester to Buffalo, there are about 10 million residents.

"We follow the same sports teams, we consume each other's media, we intermarry across the border," he says. "So when the border tightens up, it affects more than trade."

For example, many people visit their relatives across the border on Sunday. In the past, any traffic backups were relatively painless, with only minor delays at the bridges. But now, delays are getting longer. Mr. Eagles says there are anecdotal reports that people are being asked more searching questions. "And, there are stories of officials wearing latex gloves and still being unwilling to handle immigration documents."

Indeed, there is concern among government workers too. After one visitor to Canada was pulled over for a random US Customs check, the agent complained about the pressure he was under. "I'm not a health officer. I can't tell if someone is sick," said Customs Agent Mottern.

And earlier this week, a Chevy Suburban rolled up to pay the $2.50 fee for the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The driver was surprised to see the toll keeper wearing a gauze mask and latex gloves. "I guess that's to protect us," joked the driver.

"No," replied Robert Smith as he collected the money. "That's to protect me from you."

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