Couples do Christmas online, in person if 'lucky' during Canada-U.S. border closure

VANCOUVER — Like many couples, Kaelynn Ball and Dave Hogsten will be enjoying a leisurely breakfast on Christmas Day before opening presents. In their case, they'll be watching each other prepare their own meals on a screen as they spend hours together while she is at home in Canada and he is in the United States.

Ball, of Surrey, B.C., met Hogsten online on Dec. 26, 2018, before she travelled to his home in Baltimore, Md., six months later and then again last Christmas, when she presented his family with maple syrup from Canada.

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Hogsten proposed during a visit to Ball's home in February, around the time concerns about a new and deadly coronavirus were spreading around the globe, and forced the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential travel in mid-March.

Ball, 24, and Hogsten, 37, were among cross-border couples and families that met last summer in Surrey at Peace Arch Park, a no-quarantine-required international loophole where Canadians — under the watchful eye of RCMP officers — could meet with their loved ones in Washington state.

Now, Ball has created an online community of couples, including many from around the U.S. that she met at the park, so they can share their experiences of navigating a long-distance relationship during a pandemic.

"People have been able to share their stories and connect with each other and say, 'What's been hard about this year? What's been good about this year?'"

Her suggestions for date nights via Zoom or Skype are a big hit.

"We do board game nights, video game nights. We're doing a Mexican night. We're making margaritas and we're getting takeout," she said. "We're always mixing it up, and I've had a lot of people actually message me and say, 'Wow, that's a great idea.'"

Ball and Hogsten have even done a pretend pub-crawl to keep things interesting while spending so much time onscreen and not knowing when they'll see each other in person.

She also supports an online group called Faces of Advocacy, which lobbied the federal government to ease border restrictions in October so family members and couples in a long-term relationship could see each other, as long as they quarantine for 14 days.

Ball and Hogsten are eager to make wedding plans but have a few hurdles to cross, including getting vaccinated and waiting for the border to reopen, she said, adding she's learned a few things about patience while trying to spark romance during COVID-19.

"Sometimes things take time. You can't have everything immediately when you want it."

Shannon McMullin, 33, of St. Catharines, Ont., has learned about the importance of timing during her long-distance relationship with Erin Spicer of Buffalo, N.Y., after they met online a year and a half ago.

Spicer, 34, drove to St. Catharines hours before the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential travel on March 18.

"We were so lucky that she got here," McMullin said.

After Spicer returned home at the end of June, the couple tried unsuccessfully to meet on the Rainbow Bridge connecting Niagara Falls, Ont., and Niagara Falls, N.Y.

That's when they decided to drive seven hours each way to a border crossing between Quebec and Vermont every two weeks to meet at a dead-end road.

The setting wasn't so romantic, but it's where they got engaged in September.

"The border guards knew us and they were nice to us. So they actually let us put the ring on each other's finger and give each other a hug and kiss across the border," McMullin said.

Spicer applied for an exemption to the travel ban and returned to Canada in November.

"We actually get to spend Christmas together even though it'll look different than other years. It's going to be one to remember, that's for sure," McMullin said.

They're planning to get married soon, likely with just McMullin's two-and-a-half-year-old twins Harper and Hannah there, she said.

"But then we'll probably still do a big celebration in a couple of years when the world's back to normal."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.

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