Americans waiting out coronavirus in Canadian and Mexican border cities reflect on time away

Citizens say they feel more comfortable outside U.S.

May 10, 2020, 12:35 PM

They are Americans from two different worlds, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. hard, they decided to take the same step -- riding it out across the border.

Cities such as Toronto and Vancouver in Canada and Puerto Peñasco in Mexico are some of the places that Americans are taking shelter in during the crisis, and many say they have few regrets. While they miss their family and friends back home, the ex-pats say they feel more comfortable in their current locations, since the U.S. leads the world in cases and deaths by a large margin.

Canada has some 67,000 cases and less than 5,000 deaths and Mexico 29,000 cases and less than 3,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. New York state alone has more cases and deaths than both countries combined (330,000 cases and 21,000 deaths).

"It’s a strange feeling not being able to see your parents, but I know that we’re not seeing each other to protect each other," Ellen Borenstein, 28, a California resident and student who is currently renting an apartment in Toronto told ABC News.

Despite that separation, some of the ex-pats say their new neighbors and communities are making their stays as comfortable and friendly as they can.

In this March 19, 2020, file photo, the border crossing into the United States is shown in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, Canada, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world.
Graham Hughes/Zuma Press via Newscom, FILE

The U.S. closed the borders to Mexico and Canada for all non-essential travel on March 20 and they will remain so until at least May 20, according to the State Department. State Department representatives said they do not have an estimate of the number of Americans who are currently living in either Canada or Mexico.

Immigration rules allow U.S. visitors to remain in either country without a visa or permit for a maximum of six months. Data from the Canadian government indicated there were 284,870 Canadians who said they had U.S. citizenship during its 2016 census. Mexican officials could not provide data on the number of Americans with Mexican legal status.

Borenstein said she was studying at York University in Toronto when the pandemic hit, and she was concerned about contracting the virus on a plane ride back to her hometown of Upland, California. She also said she would still have to pay rent on her Toronto apartment, so for her, it was more feasible and safer to wait for the curve to flatten on the other side of the border.

"I used to live in Italy, and I have friends there who were telling me about the virus," Borenstein, who has a study permit, said. "I knew this wasn't going to be a one or two-month thing."

A person rides her bicycle past fenced off cherry blossoms at a park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, May 1, 2020.
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Becky Kurtz-Jantzen, 68, of Show Low, Arizona has Mexican residency status and typically spends her winters in a house that she had her husband own in Cholla Bay, Mexico, in Puerto Penasco which she said has a population of about 62,000. She said she grew concerned about the pandemic, because of her health risks as a diabetic and her husband’s role as an essential worker in an Arizona factory.

They agreed for her to stay in the Mexican house with the couple's three dogs while he went back.

"I truly believe this is the safest place for me," Kurtz-Jantzen told ABC News. "With all of the people in Phoenix, I know I'm better off here and at lower risk of catching the coronavirus."

Cody Littlefield, 32, who moved to Toronto with his wife back in November, said he was grateful that he did so before the pandemic hit. He was visiting family in San Diego before the border was closed and was able to make it back in time. Aside from living in a lower-risk location, Littlefield said he was his permanent residency status allowed him to get access to the country's free health care system.

"In my mind, it was going to get worse, and I didn’t want to be stuck without health care," Littlefield told ABC News, adding that he had to visit the doctor twice for non-COVID related issues since March.

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As of Friday, the U.S. has more than 1.27 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 76,000 related deaths, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto, said while the Americans living in the country may feel safer solely by virtue of not being in the U.S., they still have to follow the strict rules in place to prevent the disease's spread. Macklin said anyone who entered the country as a traveler to wait out the pandemic before their six-month allowance ends, won't be able to do much if they have no contacts in Canada.

"For them, they'll be staying more in their house during their stay," Macklin told ABC News.

However, some of the Americans said the pandemic has helped them to connect with their new communities. Borenstein said she has joined Facebook groups with other ex-pats and has frequent video chats.

She's also gotten closer with other neighbors and they have lent her their ears and aid when she's down.

"My friend from across the street came by and stood on the other side. She helped me walk down the street to the supermarket because I had anxiety," she said. "I've made some of the best friends during this."

Borenstein added that she feels that Canadians are taking more precautions with the virus. She said people in the city are staying at home, wearing their face coverings and taking steps to ensure they are spaced out.

"No matter what belief or background or political party they belong to, [Canadians] are saying the same thing, 'Social distance,'" she said.

Kurtz-Jantzen said the Mexican residents in her town have been helpful to her and the other nationals who have been living since the border closed. She said the support has been beneficial and kept her at ease.

"It is a very close-knit community," she said. "Everyone here, we all take care of each other."

In this undated file photo, the Strand, in Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico, is shown.
Peter Bischoff/Getty Images, FILE

Kurtz-Jantzen said the community's strong precautions against the virus has been the most reassuring aspect of her stay. The Mexican neighbors have adhered to social distancing and other practices without any complaints, she said.

Ron Egley, 66, who moved from southern California to Puerto Peñasco in September 2016, said he too has been impressed with the local residents' reaction to the virus. Egley, who visits his hometown frequently to see his daughter and other family members, said he feels safer and more comfortable in Mexico in light of the reports of people protesting stay at home orders in the U.S.

"People have come together here in the city, packing up care items, food donations, holding fundraisers and rallying around the city. We are not seeing anything in shape or form what we're seeing in the news from California and Arizona," Egley told ABC News.

Borenstein said Canadians are feeling the same frustrations and economic hardships as Americans who are protesting, but their patience has helped to keep the number of cases down.

"I go through waves, some days I really want to go home California," she said. "My favorite doughnut shop just reopened and I really want to go there…but then I look at the numbers and I realize that this sacrifice is worth it."

Kurtz-Jantzen said she does miss her husband and her mother, who is in her 90s, but they wouldn't want to put her in harm’s way. She said they are confident this crisis will pass soon.

"My mother feels when I’m here in Mexico, she feels I’m so happy here. So now she’s relieved that I’m here," Kurtz-Jantzen said.

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