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Point Roberts businesses say border situation worst possible outcome

Downtown Vancouver, B.C., with the Burrard Bridge in the background. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

The federal government’s decision to keep the U.S. border closed to Canadians at least another month, despite Canada deciding to open to vaccinated Americans, is getting heat not just from politicians, but from residents whose lives have been turned upside-down by the closure.

Perhaps nowhere have the restrictions been felt more sharply than Point Roberts, the small peninsula town that shares its sole land border with Canada, and can only be accessed from Washington in a car by first driving 25 miles through British Columbia.

While Canada’s move to reopen to Americans who can show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test starting on Aug. 9 means that Point Roberts residents will finally get to leave the town they have been confined to for more than a year, it spells disaster for the small businesses that have been hanging on by a thread.

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The owner of Point Roberts’ only grocery store, the International Marketplace, believes the government’s decision is the nail in the coffin for her business.

More than 70% of the homes in Point Roberts are summer homes of Canadians who would spend the warmer months there, bringing business to Ali Hayton’s grocery store. Now, she is going through a second tourist season with a major loss in revenue.

While vaccinated Washingtonians who have vacation homes in Point Roberts or who want to daytrip will be able to drive through Canada to get there when the restrictions lift early next month, Hayton doesn’t see that helping too much, since most of the houses there are not owned by Americans. She added that daytrips won’t be very attractive to American tourists if most of Point Roberts’ businesses end up having to close.

“Seventy-five percent of the people that we’re missing are from Canada,” she said. “There are a few in the U.S., but it’s just a blip on the radar, so it will definitely not make up for the amount of Point Roberts residents who are going up into Canada.”

The half-half border situation that will be the reality come Aug. 9 is the worst possible outcome for Point Roberts, Hayton explained. Since the Canadian border is opening to vaccinated Americans, vaccinated Point Roberts residents — of whom about 90% are vaccinated — will in theory be able to drive across the border and buy groceries from larger stores in B.C. or Bellingham, as long as they get a COVID test first. That will likely mean the loss of the small customer base Hayton has had in the last year.

“We were already down 80%,” Hayton said. “And then you take those 800 people who have been captive in Point Roberts for 16 months and say, ‘You can go to Canada now.’ So you take that 20% of business we had left, and you just absolutely annihilated it.”

Still, she feels for the Point Roberts residents who have been trapped in one place, and does not harbor any resentment for those who may want to shop in bigger stores starting next month.

“I don’t blame them a bit. If I’d been stuck in a 4-mile stretch of land for 16 months, I’d want to go see some other places too. … They have been wonderful and supportive and patient and kind, and if anybody deserves to go on a shopping/dining spree, it’s them,” Hayton said. “I don’t begrudge any of them that, it’s not on them. They’ve spent as much of their money with us as they possibly can.”

Hayton did receive a $100,000 grant from Governor Inslee last month, but since she is losing tens of thousands of dollars every month, it may not be enough to save the business with the extension continuing.

She appreciates what Gov. Inslee and the state’s Congressional delegation have done in advocating for Point Roberts, but ultimately, the decision rests with the Biden administration. She still holds out hope that the administration might make an exemption for the small town, allowing vaccinated Canadians to enter just Point Roberts, but that hope is dwindling.

“I think if you asked Joe Biden where it was, he wouldn’t even be able to pick it out on a map,” she said.

Hayton’s wish is for President Biden to see the struggles of Point Roberts from a personal angle.

“If they were pulling $30,000 out of their pocket every month to help subsidize the needs of one small community, would they keep doing it?” she said of the administration. “No. They’d open that border.”

Motivations for keeping the border closed

While Canadians cannot drive across the border, they can fly to Washington, rent a car, and — if they are vaccinated — drive back across the border to their own country without having to quarantine.

Since flying — the mode of transport that by nature tends to expose a person to so many more people than driving — is allowed, yet driving is not, one border analyst sees these rules as having less to do with health the longer the closure drags on.

“I think a lot of these measures are more about the theatrics of what governments are doing than the actual rational approaches to protecting public health. … I think things are really clearly, for the U.S. at least, I think, diverging from public health concerns into politics,” said Dr. Laurie Trautman, director of Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.

She believes the Department of Homeland Security has wanted to reopen for the past couple of months, but that the White House gave the no.

“The authority regarding the restriction sits within the White House,” she explained. “It kind of has been removed from just a border issue to be a much higher-level political issue. And I wonder if part of that is the Mexican border being such a sensitive political issue.”

She speculates that President Biden may want to buy time before reopening the border with Mexico, a much more politically-charged decision than the Canadian border reopening. She added that it would look discriminatory to only reopen one border.

Additionally, while Canada is requiring a vaccine passport for Americans to enter — as can stores, restaurants, entertainment venues, and events around the United States — she believes it would be politically unpopular for the federal government to require this. That means that America would have to wait until COVID has died down enough that it is safe to allow all Canadians — vaccinated or not — into the country.

“Given … the politics around vaccine passports, which are sensitive in the U.S., the U.S. is kind of faced with this all-or-nothing approach,” she said.

Trautman had previously speculated to KIRO Radio that the United States was staying closed for Canada’s sake, as a show of unification. Although Canada has now opened its border first, she noted that the U.S. fully opening to everyone regardless of vaccination status could be seen as jumping ahead of Canada — so staying closed could be the best way to stay in line with Canada’s comfort level.

“It would have been a problem if the U.S. had opened before Canada, because Canada the whole time has been much more restrictive and much more reticent to open,” she said. “And so I think that the fact that Canada is moving more quickly really empowers them.”

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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