EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – It was barely 9:30 a.m. and Luz Gallardo was already heading back to Mexico with a cart full of items purchased at South El Paso discount stores.

“It’s better to buy in bulk so we can resell it at affordable prices over there. […] Wrapping paper, dollar items, the inexpensive stuff,” she said.

Monday marked the first time in 20 months that Juarez residents like Gallardo were able to cross into the United States by land for non-essential reasons like shopping and seeing family members as long as they’re fully vaccinated for COVID-19. It was an estrangement that cost border merchants dearly and temporarily severed ties between families with members on both sides of the Rio Grande.

“My niece is hospitalized. I came to see her,” said Cynthia Torres, also a Juarez resident who crossed into El Paso early Monday morning with her mother and child. “I wasn’t planning to come but I’m taking advantage (of the rollback of travel restrictions) to see her. I think (the reopening) is good because I have family on this side of the border, and also to shop.”

The rollback of travel restrictions went smoothly and without the feared hours-long lines for visitors to come across the ports of entry, border crossers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said.

Average wait times for pedestrians were 20 to 30 minutes on Monday morning, even less for those who came across in vehicles.

A CBP spokesman said foreigners coming across for the first time since non-essential travel restrictions were put in place in March 2020 were quick to present their documents and state vaccination status. That helped speed up fully staffed international bridges in the El Paso Sector, the spokesman said.

Exact border crossing figures were not immediately available.

Mexican shoppers account for between 8% and 14% of El Paso’s $13 billion a year retail economy, according to studies by the University of Texas at El Paso. Local malls, outlet shops, hotels and restaurants benefit from these shoppers, as do stores in South El Paso near the international bridges.

“It’s nice to have our neighbors back,” said David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber. “Our economy is doing reasonably well, it’s coming back (from the COVID-19 pandemic). We have more jobs than people so it’s nice to see the border reopening from that perspective. The other thing is sectors like restaurants and hotels and retail, a large percentage of their business is from our neighbors to the south, so it’s nice to have them able to take care of those customers again.”

Danny, the manager at Casa Victoria on South El Paso Street, said the rollback of restrictions comes just in time – with the holiday shopping season looming. On Monday, he said it was too early to tell how much his sales would pick up, but he’s hopeful they will.

Phil, a cab driver based in El Paso’s Sixth Street, also said he was hopeful the El Paso economy will get a boost from the rollback of border travel restrictions.

“Everyone is happy. The businesses have suffered greatly during the pandemic, some have even closed,” he said. “As for us, we don’t know if there’s going to be an increase or not, but I’m happy people are free to come over and shop. The economies of both cities (Juarez and El Paso) depend on one another. I think it’s going to work out well for anyone concerned.”