Point Roberts’ fire chief says all town’s businesses on verge of ruin
UPDATE: Governor Inslee announced on Tuesday that he is allocating $100,000 in state Strategic Reserve Funds to keep Point Roberts’ only grocery store, the International Marketplace, open for residents. Previously, owner Ali Hayton had been planning to close the store due to the loss in revenue.
“I have been subsidizing this for 15 months and I can’t do it anymore,” Hayton said.
A community teetering on the edge of financial collapse — that is the reality that the fire chief of Point Roberts says the U.S./Canada border closure has forced upon his town.
After 16 months of the border being shut to both sides, Point Roberts Fire Chief Christopher Carleton says the small, waterfront town is all but destroyed.
The community shares a land border only with Canada, and can only be accessed from the rest of Washington by boat or by driving a short distance through British Columbia. It sits on the end of a spit that reaches just below the 49th parallel — rendering it a part of Washington, rather than British Columbia when the border was drawn.
But because Americans and Canadians alike have been barred from crossing the border to visit Point Roberts unless it is for a purpose considered essential, the town has lost the visitors it relies on.
“Upwards of 70% of our properties are internationally owned by Canadians, and that’s what we don’t have at this point,” Carleton said.
He added that Washingtonians who have second homes in Point Roberts also cannot get in because it is not deemed essential. Then there are the American day-trippers who would normally visit, especially this time of year; now Point Roberts is facing the loss of a second summer.
“We don’t have the daily flow of customers coming through our businesses, because we have no influx coming into our community,” Carleton said, adding, “Every business we have here is at a critical point of complete failure and shuttering forever.”
Small businesses have shut down or drastically reduced their hours, cutting jobs — and if the border doesn’t reopen soon, Carleton believes every one of those mom-and-pops will be gone. That includes the town’s single grocery store, the loss of which would deprive residents of on-site necessities.
Carleton pointed out that small shops and restaurants around the country have suffered greatly during the pandemic, but at least other businesses in Washington have still been able to sell to Americans. For Point Roberts businesses, who have lost out on both nationalities of visitors, even the pandemic grants they’ve received are not enough to keep them alive much longer.
Then there are the problems that Point Roberts residents run into in daily life. For those without a private boat, the only way to get to Bellingham is by the foot ferry set up as an emergency during the pandemic. The ferry, which leaves Point Roberts twice a day on Mondays and Thursdays, drops a person off in Bellingham’s Fairhaven neighborhood — across the city from from the kinds of large stores where people may want to stock up on resources.
“It doesn’t allow people who need a vehicle to go down to Fairhaven. We have people who live on $400 a month in my community, and they don’t have the money to spend on a taxi or an Uber or a Lyft,” Carleton said. “You can’t do a … big run for supplies on a ferry.”
This means a person is forced to buy only what they can carry.
Sometimes, residents are able to drive down to Bellingham — but Carleton noted that based on residents’ experiences, whether or not a person can drive to Costco as an essential trip largely “depends upon the [Canadian Border Security Agency] officer who would be in the booth at the time.”
Carleton believes that when a person’s ability to get basic necessities hinges on the whims of a border guard, people are not being treated with the compassion and respect they deserve.
“I truly believe that we’ve lost a piece of humanity,” he said.
Point Roberts properties that belong to Canadians are also getting overgrown, because no one is checking on them. Carleton noted that this can pose a danger to the community.
Governor Inslee said last week that he is working on behalf of Point Roberts residents to get the border open, and will be reaching out to them to see what necessities they need in the meantime. However, Inslee pointed out that the decision rests not with him, but with the federal government.
“I’m a frustrated governor by this, and I will continue to urge both the executive branch and Congress do do this as soon as possible,” Inslee said. “And in the interim, we will look for ways, as we have, to assist these affected communities.”
Carleton is appreciative of what Governor Inslee and Washington’s members of Congress have done, but he wants more action to be taken by both federal governments to open the border as soon as possible.
“Allowing those who are partially or fully vaccinated to come into those communities that they own property in, take care of those properties, stay with us for the coming months during the summer, spend their money with us — realistically, that means everything,” Carleton said.