Hugs all around: Loved ones reunite as US reopens borders

Elliot Spagat and Carolyn Thompson
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — The U.S. fully reopened its borders with Mexico and Canada on Monday and lifted restrictions on travel that covered most of Europe, setting the stage for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making and providing a boost for the travel industry decimated by the pandemic.

The restrictions, among the most severe in U.S. history, kept families apart, including spouses who have not been able to hug in months, grandparents whose grandchildren doubled in age since they last saw them, and uncles and aunts who have not met nieces and nephews who are now toddlers.

Lines moved quickly Monday morning at San Diego’s border with Mexico, the busiest crossing in the United States, despite the added checks for vaccinations required to enter the country.

Octavio Alvarez, 43, zipped through in less than 15 minutes, coming to the United States for the first time since February 2020. Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter, Sofia, planned to visit his mother-in-law in California for the first time in two years.

“It’s a big feeling,” said Alvarez, whose family visited California twice per month before the pandemic.

The emotional cost of the border restrictions were “very high,” he added.

Air travel: The rules also lift restrictions on air travel from some countries dating back the early days of the pandemic — as long as travelers have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often separated families.

Gaye Camara, who lives in France, was already imagining her reunion Monday with her husband in New York. They last saw each other in January 2020, not knowing it would be 21 months before they could hold each other again.

“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, while walking through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.

On the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, where traveling back and forth was a way of life before the pandemic, the reopening brought relief.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, flanked by U.S. and Mexican officials at a celebratory news conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic losses were hefty and the cutting of family ties “immeasurable.”

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero called it a “reunion between neighbor countries.”

Border traffic: Travelers at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, one of the northern border’s busiest crossings, found a 2½-hour wait at 2 a.m., officials said, though within a few hours traffic was flowing more freely. The bridge typically handles about 2 million passenger vehicles from Fort Erie, Ontario, yearly, many of them bound for the region’s shopping malls, ski slopes and sporting events. Volume dropped by more than 90% during the pandemic.

River Robinson’s American partner wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. She was thrilled to hear about the U.S. reopening and planned to take the child to the U.S. for Thanksgiving.

It’s “crazy to think he has a whole other side of the family he hasn’t even met yet,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Airlines are preparing for a surge in activity — especially from Europe — after the pandemic and resulting restrictions caused international travel to plunge.

The 28 European countries that were barred under the U.S. policy that just ended made up 37% of overseas visitors in 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association. As the reopening takes effect, carriers are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the U.S. by 21% this month over last month, according to analytics.

Maria Giribet has not seen her twin grandchildren, Gabriel and David, for about half of their lives. Now 3½, the boys are in San Francisco, which during the height of the pandemic might as well have been another planet for 74-year-old Giribet, who lives on the Mediterranean isle of Majorca.

“I’m going to hug them, suffocate them. That’s what I dream of,” said Giribet after checking in for her flight.