The border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in Houlton. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Additional federal relief funds will help Aroostook businesses, but testing requirements at the border could still hamper the return of Canadian shoppers.

Businesses along Maine’s border with Canada are getting another injection of federal relief funds shortly before the border reopens for Canadian citizens to travel in early November. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration will award more than $5.6 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grants to 94 transportation and other businesses affected by the U.S.-Canada border closure.

Businesses near the border are hoping for an uptick in Canadian travelers when the border reopens on Nov. 8, but the influx could be threatened by the continued requirement of mandatory PCR testing. Canadians are a significant part of Maine’s tourism base, making up almost a quarter of all retail sales in years prior to the pandemic.

Mike Folsom, owner of Shiretown Packaging in Houlton, which services Canadian customers who want an American mailing address to pick up packages and avoid U.S. Customs fees, said with the testing measures in place, it would likely not help his business recover.

“I talked to several customers and they said no, we’re not going to come just yet,” he said, “The only people I see [the border reopening] helping are people that want to drive to Florida. It’s not going to help the border towns at all.”

Folsom also said he had applied for the initial border town grants that had been awarded in August, but had yet to receive those funds.

Jon McLaughlin, who leads the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation in Houlton, said the grants were much needed to bring some relief to businesses in Aroostook, which have been impacted by the sales. Retail outlets in town, such as Marden’s and Andy’s IGA, have been without their Canadian customer base, who would often travel across the border for better prices on goods such as milk and poultry, McLaughlin said.

“They’ve had to have had their overall businesses reduced,” said McLaughlin. “Grants like this certainly sound good for the area.”  

“Aroostook County businesses have been uniquely impacted by the prolonged border closure because we are bordered on three sides by Canada and, for many, Canadian customers have traditionally provided a significant portion of their revenues,” said Paul Towle, president and CEO of the Caribou-based Aroostook Partnership, which will distribute the grants locally.

Towle said the funds are sorely needed to help sustain businesses that have suffered since the border closed in March 2020.  

The CARES Act awards will average about $60,000, with 37 businesses slated to receive the maximum of $100,000. Businesses which are located within 25 miles of the U.S.-Canada border are eligible for the funds.

It’s the second such grant series for Maine border businesses, the first one coming in August, which awarded $10 million.

Funds from the grants may be used to cover expenses, including but not limited to payroll costs, rent or mortgage payments, and purchase of personal protective equipment required by the business.The funds also must be spent on operations that are strictly within Maine.