October 22nd, 2021

Canadian sports fans eager to cross border as United States lifts restrictions

By John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press on October 13, 2021.

A group of Buffalo Bills fans from Toronto, Canada, pose for a photo while tailgating in the parking lot of New Era Field before an NFL football game between the Bills and the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Adrian Kraus

For years, Jason Billingsley and his wife have attended the Bills home opener at Highmark Stadium, flying from Vancouver to Hamilton and then driving on to Buffalo, N.Y. That September tradition was derailed for two NFL seasons by COVID-19 restrictions limiting non-essential travel across the Canadian-American border.

Billingsley’s hopes were raised on Wednesday when the United States announced its intention to lift travel restrictions on its borders with Mexico and Canada by November, just in time for he and his wife to fly to New Orleans for the Bills game on Nov. 25.

“Whenever the Bills are in prime time, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s the game that we have to go to,'” said Billingsley from Anmore, B.C. “And my wife and I got engaged in New Orleans, so we’re very much looking forward to this trip.”

As a Vancouver Canucks fan, Billingsley is also excited to drive down to Seattle and watch a regional rivalry develop with the Kraken, the NHL’s newest expansion team.

Billingsley still has his concerns, however.

His son is nine years old and therefore unvaccinated, so Billingsley and his wife intend to always wear a mask when attending sporting events. Lower vaccination rates in the United States are also a concern for Billingsley.

As an example, 57 per cent of Louisiana’s population is vaccinated, compared to 74.7 per cent in British Columbia.

“We’ve got a lot of sports friends that go to the games and a lot of them have chosen to not get vaccinated,” said Billingsley. “So we’re very hesitant on even engaging with the people that we’ve previously engaged with at sporting events because we have an unvaccinated child at home.”

Tim Macdonell, the CEO of Elite Sports Tours, said that after a difficult 19 months, his business has surged in the past 24 hours. His company organizes bus trips to major sporting events, with Bills fans in southern Ontario making the pilgrimage to Buffalo his main clientele.

Elite Sports Tours sent out an email updating many longtime clients on Tuesday night of the change to border regulations as the news started to break. Macdonell said that in many cases, his company’s newsletter was how people found out that they would be able to see their favourite team in person again.

“People are really excited, especially Canadians who haven’t had the luxury of being able to travel and do these things for nearly two years now,” said Macdonell. “There’s definitely a pent-up demand.

“They want to see games, travel to different venues, go to a Bills game with a group of friends … To have that atmosphere back is a bit of normality that we haven’t been able to experience for some time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2021.

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