NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – In the tiny kitchen inside her food cart, Selina Afroj and her two sons, Amanul, 16 and Adib, 15, take orders from customers and give each other directions.
The smells of lamb on the grill and deep-fried falafel practically pour from the little yellow food cart, though the sun is unforgiving and everyone’s sweating.
It’s a busy Friday afternoon in late June on Old Falls Street, where Street Cart Cafe and Halal Food is parked no more than a five-minute walk from Niagara Falls State Park in New York.
The park’s visitors, tourists and the travelers alike, keep asking Afroj the same question – and it’s not about her Middle Eastern food.
“They’re asking when the border opens,” Afroj says, laughing, “and I’m like, ‘I don’t know!'”
Her son Adib chimes in, “They’re happy to visit, but at the same time sad because they can’t cross.”
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The Canadian border closed to nonessential travel in March 2020, with reopening dates being announced and pushed back again and again. The current reopening date is slated for July 21, though that could change, too.
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For the last 16 months, tourists exploring Niagara Falls have been limited to half the experience – the lesser half, some say.
“That view is the front view, and our side is side view,” Afroj says. She drops her voice to a whisper, leaning out of the cart’s window. “The one that looks pretty is Canada, but we decided our side is more pretty!”
Afroj’s giggles prompt her two sons to smile at her. But she makes a good point: Travelers come to Niagara Falls usually knowing they’ll be able to cross the border and experience both sides. But what happens when that’s not an option?
“We’re seeing a lot more people come from out-of-state,” Adib says. “And I think people should know: Don’t expect Canada to be open for awhile. Make the most of what you can on the U.S. side.”
‘You’ve got to take the good with the bad’
In celebration of their 32nd wedding anniversary, Cathy and Richard Barr traveled from Logansport, Indiana, for a long weekend at Niagara Falls. For the weeks leading up to their trip, checking the border status became a part of their routine. Ultimately, it would remain closed when the time for their vacation arrived.
“We were disappointed,” Cathy Barr says. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you’ve definitely got to go to the Canadian side!'”
Stuck on the U.S. side, they tried to enjoy as much as it had to offer. The Maid of the Mist was phenomenal – their camera got a little wet, but they enjoyed meeting a large family with young children who squealed with delight when torrential rain from the falls splashed inside the boat.
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They also explored a casino, where they felt wildly out of place. They lost a bit of money and quickly decided that was enough.
“We like to do the touristy things,” Richard Barr says. “And it’s always nice to get away – see a different slice of humanity. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
They describe the atmosphere as lively, but still leisurely. Some restaurants had long enough lines that they’d opt to give up and try somewhere else, but traffic didn’t feel nightmarish and crossing the street was easy enough, they say.
John Percy, president and CEO of Destination Niagara USA, says this time – at the tail end of the COVID-19 shutdown but also still with the border closure in effect – might actually be a good thing for the area.
“With the border closed off, you can’t deny it is an advantage to us,” Percy says. And Niagara Falls is home to so many outdoor, open-air attractions and activities – ideal for families and visitors venturing out after a year and a half of COVID-19 life.
The “Canadian friends to the North” do possess a beautiful panoramic vista, Percy says. He’s careful not to call it a better view, emphasizing that each side has something different to offer.
But the Destination Niagara USA office hasn’t received a single negative complaint about the U.S. side not having as much to do as the Canadian side, he says.
“I think we are going to benefit positively from it being closed in the short term,” Percy says. “And in this short term, we’re really trying to take advantage of the opportunity to change people’s mindset.”
‘We’re getting back to real life again’
On that same sunny Friday afternoon in late June, a sea of people lines up along the Niagara River, heading down toward a long dock to board the Maid of The Mist.
Advice from employees to wait a bit before putting on the bright blue poncho goes widely ignored. Toddlers yank on parents’ arms – Dad! I can feel the water from here! – and ask repeatedly where Canada is.
When the crowd has boarded, teens promptly claiming prime real estate at the front of the boat, the Maid of the Mist cruises steadily toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. The wind whips against the plastic ponchos, the thwacking noise growing ever louder. Water flies sideways into the boat and kids scream – some in genuine terror, others in total delight.
On the ride, social distancing is ignored. Masks are few, if not entirely absent from the scene. And everyone seems to be just fine with it.
The Maid of The Mist is a signature part of visiting Niagara Falls, says Brynn Vandermast, and seeing it back to normal is a sign things are changing for the better.
“We’re getting back to real life again,” Vandermast, who works in an ice cream stand that her family opened last summer, says.
Parked on Old Falls Street, adjacent to Niagara Falls State Park, Vandermast says it’s impossible for her to compare the experience to what it was like pre-COVID-19, but this summer is certainly busy, she said.
There’s some disappointment she encounters when people ask her about the border restrictions, especially if they had expected to be able to cross, she says.
“Some people don’t know it’s closed,” Vandermast says. “So now we get all the tourists over here on this side because they can’t go over. We’re the only side they can see the falls.”
But for Manar Taleb, who drove up from Ohio with her two young kids early that morning, the inability to get into Canada seemed like a benefit.
“We went to Canada before,” Taleb says, gesturing to her 12-year-old son, Tariq, who visited with her when he was 8. “The Canadian side – the view is better. But we never see this side.”
Now, with 3-year-old Leen in tow, the trio has stopped for a quick snack – fries with extra ketchup – to fuel up before exploring the falls.
Taleb turns to her kids, wriggling in their seats, and asks if they’re excited to see the falls. Leaning over the backside of her chair, Leen shoves out her fist and gives a big thumbs up. Definitely.
Georgie Silvarole is a backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s New York State Team. You can reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.