Residents living near the river dividing Madawaska, Maine, from Canada say the international border has long been more concept than barrier. People crossed the 100-year-old bridge to Edmundston, New Brunswick, easily each day to shop, visit family and head to work.

But a year after Covid-19 caused tight travel restrictions, the border remains a major impediment to these remote, interwoven communities and many others like them. Canadians are no longer streaming into Maine for cheaper American goods like gasoline and milk. And families that straddle the border have been cut off.

“We’re both suffering,” said Gary Picard, the appointed town manager in Madawaska, regarding his community and its Canadian neighbor.

Madawaska, population about 3,700, sits atop Maine along the Saint John River. The nearest of Maine’s larger cities, Bangor, is 200 miles south. Under normal times, residents can walk into Edmundston, home to about 16,000.

These communities are tied so closely they share a paper plant, with a mill on the Canadian side that pipes pulp to Madawaska to make products like burger wrappers and pharmaceutical inserts. They also share an Acadian heritage, typically celebrated with summer festivals. Cross-border marriages are common.

“When you grow up in this area, across the river is just across the river,” said Sharon Boucher, the 70-year-old head of the local chamber of commerce in Madawaska. A native on the Maine side, she grew up speaking French, which is the dominant language in Edmundston, and her three daughters were born in the Canadian city.

Sharon Boucher, executive director at the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, grew up in Madawaska and had her children in a Canadian hospital.

The U.S. significantly restricted border entries on March 21, 2020, when the Covid-19 crisis was ramping up. Commercial traffic and essential workers still cross, but more casual visits—the trips for dairy products or to visit an elderly parent—have been largely restricted. The U.S. limits are currently set to expire later this month, but have been steadily extended through the pandemic.

About 3.3 million people poured through borders into Maine by car, bus, train or on foot 2019, federal data show. But the number plunged 79% to about 700,000 last year, and Canadian border data also show significant drops in incoming travel. Maine’s Office of Tourism estimates Canadian visitation tumbled by about 80% on the year, costing the state about $1 billion.

There is a small border station on the Madawaska side of the bridge where visitors stop to check in. That hasn’t changed, but restrictions have.

As soon as the restrictions were put in place,

Tim Lausier

knew his gas station and convenience store in Madawaska would take a hit. He and his sister Becky Pelletier, who jointly own Bob’s Service Center, had to let their eight part-time and two full-time employees go, he said.

“Seventy-five percent of my business is Canadian,” Mr. Lausier said. “I looked at my sister and said, ‘Becky, we can’t keep these people on board.’ ”

He estimated the pandemic has cost about one million gallons in gasoline sales, along with steeply reduced milk sales. “I found out I took Edmundston for granted,” Mr. Lausier said.

Bob’s Service Center co-owner Tim Lausier, right, said his Madawaska store has suffered sharp sales declines.

Marden’s, a family-owned business that sells surplus and salvage wares at 14 Maine stores, several near the border, is also feeling the pinch. Revenue at the store in Calais, Maine, near the state’s busiest border crossing, has tumbled by about 35% to 40%, said

Craig Burgess,

the company’s general manager.

“We’ve got to get that border open,” he said.

The closures have caused personal strain, keeping loved ones far apart even if they only live a short drive away, said

Eric Marquis,

Edmundston’s deputy mayor. “All of these things are starting to take their toll,” he said.

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In Madawaska, the pandemic has largely separated Vincent Frallicciardi from his longtime partner and fiancée, Melanie Michaud, even though she works at a credit union just over the bridge in Edmundston. Mr. Frallicciardi, a dual citizen, said he can enter Canada for work purposes, but not casual visits.

Were the borders open, Ms. Michaud could easily travel from her native New Brunswick over to Mr. Frallicciardi’s Maine home. During a visit in October, she instead drove two hours to the city of Fredericton, flew to Montreal, and then to Boston. Mr. Frallicciardi picked her up for the long drive into Maine, and she quarantined for two weeks after crossing back into her home country.

“We breathe the same air, but it’s a river crossing that separates us,” she said.

In St. Stephen, a small New Brunswick town that also borders Maine, Canadian Jane Curran has been separated from her mother and stepfather, both in their early 80s, throughout the pandemic. They live alone just across the divide in Maine.

“I FaceTime my mom and I see how much she’s aged,” said Ms. Curran, 58, a trucking-company supervisor. “Every time we talk we cry. Everything is bad about it. Everything.”

There is some hope ahead, at least. Her parents have survived a year on their own, and both received their second vaccine dose the last week in February.

A nearly empty Main Street in Madawaska, Maine, this month.

Investigating the Origin of Covid-19

Write to Jon Kamp at jon.kamp@wsj.com

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