As situation in Point Roberts grows ‘dire,’ Gov. Inslee pushes for Biden to open border

Sep 28, 2021, 4:19 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2021, 9:51 am
Point Roberts...
Right now, only vaccinated Americans can cross the border into Canada -- Canadians still cannot come to the U.S. for non-essential purposes. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)
(Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

Governor Jay Inslee is asking President Biden to make an exception for Point Roberts, so that the border for the small exclave community can immediately be opened for vaccinated Canadians.

The small Washington town sits on an isolated spit of land that can only be accessed by water — or by driving about 25 miles through British Columbia.

While Canada opened its border last month to Americans who can show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test, the U.S. border has remained closed to all Canadians for non-essential purposes since the start of the pandemic, and will remain so until at least Oct. 21.

For businesses in Point Roberts, that means depriving the town of the vast majority of its customer base for 18 months.

Most of the houses in Point Roberts are summer homes of Canadians. As Governor Inslee pointed out in his letter to the Biden administration, the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce says Canadian visitors make up 85% of the town’s annual revenue. Because vacation homes are not considered an essential purpose, those Canadian property owners have been barred from visiting since March 2020.

Point Roberts residents and business owners have said that many of the town’s shops, restaurants, and other small businesses have closed — and those that remain open are teetering on the brink. Ali Hayton, the owner of the town’s only grocery store, told KIRO Radio earlier this year that she has been losing $30,000 each month.

“The harms and economic depredations experienced by these communities grow more dire with each month – and each monthly extension of these blanket restrictions,” Gov. Inslee wrote in his letter.

Besides losing out on two summer tourist seasons — the time of year that keeps the businesses going through slower winters — Point Roberts businesses are now losing some of few remaining customers they did have, since vaccinated residents are free to go shop and recreate in Canada. Hayton said in August that she did not blame Point Roberts residents one bit for wanting to see something new after a year-and-a-half in the same few square miles, but that it nevertheless is still devastating for her business.

“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.”

Speaking before Congress last week, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked the federal government to make an exception for Point Roberts, as well as to open the entire border to vaccinated Canadians, just as Canada has done for vaccinated Americans. The state’s Congressional delegation had asked for the border to reopen as early as last winter, for the sake of small businesses all along the Washington/British Columbia line that rely on cross-border tourism.

Murray pointed out in her latest remarks before Congress that Canadians have all along been allowed to fly to the United States as long as they can show a negative COVID test — yet driving across the border is forbidden.

“You can take a boat right now from Canada to Point Roberts. You can fly across the border from Vancouver down to Seattle,” she said. “But right now, because this border is closed, a Canadian family cannot go to Point Roberts for lunch.”

Inslee added in his letter that since vaccinated U.K. and E.U. travelers will soon be allowed to come to the United States, he sees no reason why the entire border should not open for Canadians who have had the vaccine. Pointing to the high vaccination rates of the state and province, Inslee wrote that he could “think of few communities better prepared to be reunited on that basis than Washington State and British Columbia.”

“A vaccinated Canadian is no more dangerous than a vaccinated person from anywhere else in the state of Washington or any other state in the United States,” Inslee said at a press conference last week.

Along with Washington’s members of Congress, Gov. Inslee has been calling for months for the federal government to reopen the border so that the state’s businesses can start to once again gain some of their Canadian customers back.

“This is an incredible hardship on not only Canadian citizens, but Americans and Washingtonians who are suffering economically, grievously, because of this unnecessary and unreasonable extension,” Inslee said at the press conference.

In the interim, the state government is offering another round of Working Washington grants of up to $50,000 specifically for those small businesses most affected by the border closure. To qualify, a business must be customer-facing, have an annual revenue of less than $5 million, and operate in Clallam, Jefferson, San Juan, Island, Skagit, Whatcom, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, or Pend Oreille counties. Business owners can apply online between Oct. 4-18.

Governor Inslee also awarded a $100,000 grant over the summer to Point Roberts’ grocery store, the International Marketplace. However, Hayton said that even with the grant, the losses may become too insurmountable to continue if the border closure goes on much longer.

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As situation in Point Roberts grows ‘dire,’ Gov. Inslee pushes for Biden to open border