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SWEET GRASS — Two weeks ago, Greg Rice and Joyce Bateman were turned around at the Canadian border. The Helena residents were hoping to haul some building materials 2,974 miles to their daughter’s place in Alaska.

The U.S.-Canadian border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But northbound travel over the border opened Monday as Canada welcomed back fully vaccinated Americans, drawing a line of 30-40 vehicles by 8:30 a.m.

“They sent us back two weeks ago,” Rice said. “We’ve been waiting.”

The border service didn’t consider their work plans on the home in Alaska “essential,” so Rice and Bateman returned to the Port of Sweetgrass on Interstate 15 on Monday armed with fresh, negative COVID test results and a close read on the rules set by the neighbors to the north.

Rice and Bateman, who have both been fully vaccinated for months, made clear they’re not against the rules meant to keep Canadians safe.

“It’s not that hard,” Bateman said. “You just have to follow the rules.”

“It’s just a hiccup,” Rice said.

For this stretch of the state, the border closure has delivered different impacts to different people. Agriculture producers have been cut off from purchasing equipment parts in Alberta without a receipt, although commercial freighters could bring the parts down.

Shelby, one of the larger towns on the I-15 corridor, has suffered some from the loss of through traffic headed for Great Falls, the commercial hub for the area, said Shelby Chamber of Commerce Director Ashley Holten last week.

The U.S. side is not open to Canadian travelers until at least Aug. 21, a matter that’s raised the ire of Montana’s congressional delegation. Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines criticized Democratic President Joe Biden in a release Monday as hurting Montana businesses with the extended closure. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester likewise said he had been pushing the administration to open the border, but added it was important to monitor the pandemic as the delta variant of COVID-19 fuels a spike in cases across the country and in Montana.

Cheri Hirst, general manager of the Comfort Inn in Shelby and member of the Central Montana Tourism Board, said Monday that opening the Canadian side of the border still restores some partial sense of normalcy, considering the family members and friends that live on either side of the invisible line crossing the plains.

“It’s been hard here because we’re close neighbors and we’ve been crossing so freely for so long,” she said. “We were so used to it.”

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