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Border residents rejoice as US says it will lift travel ban

SAN DIEGO — Beleaguered business owners and families separated by COVID-19 restrictions rejoiced Wednesday after the U.S. said it will reopen its land borders to nonessential travel next month, ending a 19-month freeze.

Travel across land borders from Canada and Mexico has been largely restricted to workers whose jobs are deemed essential. New rules will allow fully vaccinated foreign nationals to enter the U.S. regardless of the reason starting in early November, when a similar easing of restrictions is set for air travel. By mid-January, even essential travelers seeking to enter the U.S., such as truck drivers, will need to be fully vaccinated.

Shopping malls and big box retailers in U.S. border towns whose parking spaces had been filled by cars with Mexican license plates were hit hard by travel restrictions.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the economic impact was hard to quantify but can be seen in the sparse presence of shoppers at a high-end outlet mall on the city’s border with Tijuana, Mexico. The decision comes at a critical time ahead of the holiday shopping season.

In Del Rio, Texas, Mexican visitors account for about 65% of retail sales, said Blanca Larson, executive director of the chamber of commerce and visitors bureau in the city of 35,000 people.

“Along the border, we’re like more of one community than two different communities,” she said.

The ban has also had enormous social and cultural impact, preventing family gatherings when relatives live on different sides of the border. Community events have stalled even as cities away from U.S. borders have inched toward normalcy.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where hockey and ice skating are ingrained, the Soo Eagles haven’t had a home game against a Canadian opponent in 20 months. The players, 17 to 20 years old, have been traveling to Canada since border restrictions were lifted there two months ago. Now the U.S. team can host.

“I almost fell over when I read it,” said Ron Lavin, co-owner of the Eagles. “It’s been a long frustrating journey for people on a lot of fronts far more serious than hockey, but we’re just really pleased. It’s great for the city.”

Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents have been allowed into Canada since August, provided they have waited at least two weeks since getting their second vaccine dose and can show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Mexico has not enforced COVID-19 entry procedures for land travelers.

The latest move follows last month’s announcement that the U.S. will end country-based travel bans for air travel and instead require vaccination for foreign nationals seeking to enter by plane.

The new rules only apply to legal entry. Those who enter illegally will still be subject to expulsion under a public health authority that allows for the swift removal of migrants before they can seek asylum.

Travelers entering the U.S. by vehicle, rail and ferry will be asked about their vaccination status as part of the standard U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection. At officers’ discretion, travelers will have their proof of vaccination verified in a secondary screening process.

Unlike air travel, for which proof of a negative COVID-19 test is required before boarding a flight to enter the U.S., no testing will be required to enter the U.S. by land or sea, provided the travelers meet the vaccination requirement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted.

Officials said the CDC was still working to formalize procedures for admitting those who received doses of two different vaccines, as was fairly common in Canada.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “pleased to be taking steps to resume regular travel in a safe and sustainable manner” and lauded the economic benefits of it.

Mexico, Canada and elected officials from U.S. border regions have pressured the Biden administration for months to ease restrictions.

“This is a win for families who’ve been separated and businesses and tourism industries whose operations have been blocked since the start of the pandemic,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, echoing reactions of other federal, state and local officials.

Cross-border traffic has plummeted since the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

The number of vehicle passengers entering the U.S. in Niagara Falls, New York — the busiest land crossing on the Canadian border — fell 83% to 1.7 million in 2020 and has remained low this year.

“Losing those customers over the last 18 months has been one of the primary reasons our hotels, restaurants and attractions have been suffering,” said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the area’s tourism agency.

The move toward restoring regular travel comes as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have dropped to about 85,000 per day, the lowest level since July, following a spike from the more transmissible delta variant of the virus. Per capita case rates in Canada and Mexico have been been markedly lower in the two countries than the U.S. for the duration of the pandemic, which amplified frustrations about the U.S. restrictions on travel.

A front yard Halloween decoration adorns a home on James Street on Tuesday afternoon.

Dressed to impress

Chioffi files complaints over censure, removal from committees

RUTLAND TOWN — A town Select Board member who was censured and stripped of his committee assignments after comments he made on Facebook says he has filed complaints with several state offices over the issue.

On Sept. 28, the Rutland Town Select Board voted 4-0 to censure Select Board member Don Chioffi and to strip him of his committee assignments. This was in response to an exchange Chioffi had with Rutland City resident, Willuster Jones, on Facebook over the mascot being used by the local high school.

Jones had posted to the page “Rutland Vermont Think Tank” a comment that read, “People seem to forget Rutland has already made a name change. Red Raiders. Old Rutland pin. Go Ravens!”

His comment was in reference to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Rutland City Schools mascot, which is being changed from the Rutland Raiders to the Rutland Ravens, though it has not been a smooth transition. Jones’ post had a photo of an old pin bearing what appears to be an older version of the mascot.

Chioffi’s commented, “what the hell is a willuster jones? (sic)” Later in the thread he posted, “You and your opinion are just that — a singular view that means absolutely nothing to me — nor to thousands more — you are a puny whining minority bent on changing a proud history — the voters have spoken — birds need to fly away!”

Chioffi apologized to Jones at the meeting, but maintained that his use of the word “minority” wasn’t a reference to Jones’ race, but to the number of people supporting the Raiders name over those backing Ravens.

Jones is Black.

The move to censure Chioffi was initiated by Select Board member John Paul Faignant, who is also the town’s health officer. At the Sept. 28 meeting, Faignant moved to suspend the agenda to address Chioffi’s Facebook comments. Later in the meeting, Faignant referred to other comments Chioffi has made on Facebook regarding the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black people killed by police whose deaths fueled much of the Black Lives Matter movement. Faignant also, as he has in the past, accused Chioffi of using the n-word in a Police Committee meeting, which Chioffi denies.

“I would like to object to the inclusion of any of the remarks offered by Mr. Faignant at the last Select Board meeting, in an illegal maneuver designed to avoid the transparency that’s required of our longstanding policies in this town for operation of our board,” said Chioffi on Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.

He said Faignant’s actions violated the board’s deliberative rules.

“Secondly, since his motion to suspend the formal agenda was allowed by you, Madam Chair, there was in fact no meeting at all, since the entire published purpose of the meeting was the published agenda, which was then no longer on the table,” said Chioffi.

He accused Ashcroft of allowing, “Mr. Faignant to utter clearly false, misleading, defamatory statements about a fellow board member intended to harm the reputation of that member. That action constituted slander and your duty as chair, at the very minimum, is not to let that conduct take place at our meetings.”

He said Ashcroft would be “furthering an act of libel” if she allowed minutes from the Sept. 28 meeting to be approved.

Finally, he said it was illegal for the board to have censured him and stripped him of his committee assignments. He said his Constitutional rights had been violated and that he was being discriminated against.

He informed the board that on Friday, he filed complaints with the secretary of state, attorney general, and Professional Responsibility Board of the Vermont Judiciary.

He clarified on Wednesday that his complaint to the judiciary was specifically about Ashcroft and Faignant, both of whom are attorneys.

“I want my rightful elected position restored and my equal rights with every other board member restored as you have no legal authority to discriminate against me as a minority member of this board,” he said. “That concludes my statement, Madam Chair, and I object and will vote ‘no’ on the motion to approve these minutes.”

Ashcroft said the minutes would be tabled until more board members were present, as Faignant and Select Board member Sharon Russell were absent.



Center eyes dress factory

Greg Cox said Wednesday that the Vermont Farmers Food Center once again wants to redevelop the city’s most blighted property.

Cox, president of the organization that converted the former Mintzer property into a winter farmers’ market, went before the Community and Economic Development Committee seeking support for a $20 million project that would cover improvements not just at the food center’s property, but also to the long-vacant Lynda Lee dress factory located behind it. The committee voted to recommend the Board of Aldermen give Cox what he was looking for that night — the more modest sum of $32,000 to help pay for a feasibility study.

“This has the potential to change the face of Rutland,” Cox said.

Cox said his board was working with consultants on getting new market tax credits to help pay for $5 million of improvements to the food center property, which would include a commercial kitchen, custom meat-cutting room and a workforce development kitchen. The consultants told them, according to Cox, that $5 million was small change to such programs and that the organization should think bigger.

Directly behind the center sits the 30,000-square-foot dress factory, a long-vacant property with contamination issues that city officials have called the most blighted property in the city.

“What could it be?” Cox said. “There is a distinct, critical lack of infrastructure for agriculture. ... The Lynda Lee would be perfect for co-packing. Value-added is on a major trajectory in Vermont.”

On top of that, Cox said, the building could fulfill the Rutland Area Food Co-op’s need for additional space, which would in turn help relieve the “food desert” conditions in the Northwest Neighborhood.

“We would double the gross sales of that co-op in a minute,” Cox said.

Cox said the portions of the project dealing with the food center property was effectively funded. Cox said a Phase II environmental assessment was underway at the dress factory, which had known asbestos problems, and that brownfields grants would likely be available as well as historic preservation money — he said it was one of the few art deco buildings in the region. He said they had hired former Housing Trust of Rutland County executive director Elisabeth Kulas to work on the project.

Meanwhile, Cox said they needed $37,500 to study the viability of using the dress factory. He said his board of directors had allocated $5,000 and he was hoping the city would kick in some or all of the rest.

“I think, as a city, we would all like to know the capacity of that building,” he said.

Reactions from the committee members ranged from reserved support to enthusiasm.

“I’m from that neighborhood,” Board of Aldermen member William Gillam said. “We’ve been living with that piece of crap for a long time. ... I think $32,000 is nothing compared with the misery we’ve been living with for 20 years. ... If we want something to happen here. we’ve got to put some skin in the game. If we’re serious about this development, we have to ante up.”

Brennan Duffy, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, sounded a note of caution, questioning whether a study in that price range would be enough to untangle the complex issues with the property. He also said it was being eyed as the potential site for a TIF district in the city, and asked if it did not make more sense to wait to do the study until the environmental assessment was complete.

Board member Devon Neary said that if the city wanted to use the site as a TIF district, that was a reason to act sooner.

“If we don’t have real, concrete projects lined up in nine months, we can kiss that opportunity goodbye,” he said, noting that he had worked in environmental assessments like the one underway at the factory. “We have developed much bigger sites with much greater contamination. ... The level of remediation doesn’t really matter when you have a funding source behind it.”

Board member Michael Doenges made a motion to take $32,000 from the Zamias fund — which Treasurer Mary Markowski said has $274,000 left in it after collecting the last of the impact fees from the owners of Diamond Run Mall — and the committee voted unanimously to send the proposal to the full Board of Aldermen.

“This is going to make our life hell for the next five years as a board, but we would like to share that hell,” Cox said.



Praise for border reopening plan across northern New England

MONTPELIER — Political and business leaders from across northern New England on Wednesday praised plans by the Biden administration to begin allowing people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the United States across the land border with Canada.

The Department of Homeland Security announced late Tuesday that both the Canadian and Mexican borders would reopen early next month. It did not provide a specific date.

Officials across the region have for months been calling for the reopening of the border to nonessential travel, including tourism and family visits.

In a statement, Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott called the move “a significant step forward on the path from pandemic to endemic management of COVID-19.”

“Vermont and Canada are not just neighbors, our communities are linked by family, friends, social and cultural connections, natural resources, commerce and more,” Scott said.

In a joint statement, the three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation also praised the move.

“It is good news that fully vaccinated family members and loved ones will now be able to reunify and businesses will once again be able to welcome Canadian visitors with ease,” said the statement by Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. “We know how much personal and financial hardship has been experienced on both sides of the border, and see the reopening as an important step in a long road to recovery.”

New Hampshire Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen also praised the announcement as did the state’s two members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is a win for families who’ve been separated and businesses and tourism industries whose operations have been blocked since the start of the pandemic,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Maine independent Sen. Angus King said it was good to see the White House “creating a consistency in travel policy.”

Meanwhile, J.J. Toland, a spokesperson for the Jay Peak Resort, just south of the Canadian border in northern Vermont, which normally gets about half its business from Canadians, said the resort is still waiting to learn the details of what Canadians will have to do to cross between the two countries.

Details such as whether skiers will have to get a COVID-19 test before entering the United States and returning to Canada and what would be an acceptable timeline for those tests are still being worked out.

“Our expectations of potential Canadian business will become clearer as more travel guidance from DHS is issued,” Toland said in an email.


Nightmare time

“Halloween Kills” picks up at the moment 2018 “Halloween” ended. And, yes, Jamie Lee Curtis is there. A8

Upset win

The Fair Haven field hockey team notched one of its biggest wins in years, upsetting Windsor 2-1 Wednesday afternoon. B1