A Washington town isolated from the U.S. is now cut off from Canada, too — High Country News – Know the West
COVID-19 border closings have restricted the international routines of the tiny town of Point Roberts.
In 2014, a couple looked for whales off the coast of Point Roberts, Washington. The isolated community usually relies on free travel between the US and Canada, but during COVID-19’s travel restrictions, residents are relatively trapped in the small peninsula.
On a clear Saturday morning in July, I called the Saltwater Cafe in Point Roberts, Washington. The cafe is usually overcrowded with dozens of customers sitting inside and out on the patio, gazing out at the Gulf Islands over the Salish Sea, and enjoying the salty breeze from the beach across the street. “You can’t get a seat on a normal weekend,” says owner Tamra Hansen. But that morning when she spoke to me, only one table was occupied; Business has declined 75% since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
Businesses and communities across the United States are struggling. But Point Roberts is in a unique position – not just figuratively, but geographically as well. Located at the tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, the city falls entirely below the 49th parallel, the line that separates Canada and the United States. To get to the closest mainland city, Point Roberts residents must cross a border checkpoint on the northern border into Canada, drive approximately 25 miles, and then cross the US through another checkpoint nearby from Blaine, Washington.
Usually these crossings are a mere formality; Prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon for U.S. and Canadian citizens to cross the border several times a day for exercise, shopping trips, and visits. But since officials restricted cross-border travel in March, Point Roberts’ roughly 1,000 full-time residents have found themselves unexpectedly isolated and alienated from their usual lifestyles. Now the invisible line separating the two countries stands in the way of a once easy journey, and after four months of the pandemic, people are on point missing the things they used to take for granted. “It’s very strange being seven minutes away,” said Jessie Hettinga, a Point Roberts resident. “That was your life, but now it’s not a possibility.”
It’s a common misconception that Point Roberts was a mistake; People often assume that surveyors did not know they were separating Point Roberts from Canada when the US and Britain signed the Oregon Treaty in 1846, the 49th. But the choice was intended, intended as a strategic advantage for the US, said Mark Swenson, Treasurer of the Point Roberts Historical Society and author of Point Roberts Backstory, a story of the city.
As a result, Point Roberts has always had a fluid relationship with its Canadian neighbors. “We are a one-footed community in both countries,” said Swenson. “We rely on each other” During Prohibition, for example, Point Roberts was an important rum port. “There was a whisper bar and brothel right on the border, on the Canadian side of the line, and the window opened to Point Roberts,” said Swenson. The tables turned in the 1960s when Canadians began visiting Point Roberts to buy alcohol because a British Columbia law banned Sunday sales until the 1986 law was amended for the Vancouver World’s Fair. “You could have 10,000 Canadians at Point Roberts every Sunday in the ’60s,’ 70s, and early ’80s,” said Swenson.
“We are a one-footed community in both countries. We rely on each other. “
However, most visits are now banned. Point Roberts residents can only cross the border to work, pick up prescriptions, or attend a doctor’s appointment in the US mainland and are not allowed to stop at all while traveling in Canada. The only other way to get to the mainland is by private boat or the $ 135 twice-weekly flight to Bellingham, Washington.
The border restrictions have never been as long since the border was set as the current one – which will last until August, if not longer, Swenson said. Even the closure after the September 11th terrorist attacks took less than a day. The isolation “is starting to weigh on people,” said Christopher Carleton, the city’s chief fire officer. “That’s where we are now: it leads to greater depression, and a lack of physical contact creates a little crisis in my community.”
The Point Roberts International Marketplace in 2014. As the only full-service grocery store in town, it can be difficult to stock the selection of alcohol for all summer tourists. Due to the current travel restrictions, sales are declining overall.
IN JULY, Carleton wrote to President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other government officials urging them to recognize “the unique circumstances” of Point Roberts and find a way to facilitate more open transit. Previously, two petitions on Change.org aimed at expanding the list of activities that warrant border crossings had garnered thousands of signatures. One of the petitions made by Canadian resident Kevin McIntosh called for Canadians to enter the US with houses, boats or cattle at Point Roberts to look after their property; he wrote that he was concerned that his “Canadian Licensed Pleasure Craft” anchored in Point Roberts could sink without proper maintenance. After five weeks, McIntosh gave up waiting for an answer. On an update to his petition page, he described how an earlier drive of a few minutes had become a full-day trip: he flew from Vancouver to Seattle, rented a car to go about 160 miles north to Bellingham, took the afternoon flight to Point Roberts and then spent a few days fixing his boat before sailing home.
The lack of tourists this season has impacted the many local businesses that rely on Canadians’ money. Dean Priestman, manager of Point Roberts International Marketplace, the only full-service grocery store in town, said he usually has so many customers during the summer that it is difficult to keep the selection of alcohol in stock. This year, however, total sales are declining. While the demand for some products remains – Priestman said he received some niche inquiries from Canadians for items they can only get in the US, like grape nuts, certain flavors of Tim’s Cascade Potato Chips, or Tillamook butter and cheese – the cost is increased for international shipping deterred such commands. “It’s usually busy, but it’s not right now,” said Priestman. “It is quiet.”
“For us at Point Roberts we are very limited due to the lack of services and the ability to cross. I feel like we are under house arrest. “
This calm has extended to the everyday life of the residents. Hettinga, who has three teenagers, said it wasn’t uncommon for the kids to cross the border nine times a day between exercise and running errands. Now her daughter, an accomplished gymnast, and her hockey-playing son are trying to train in their back yard using Zoom. “My daughters’ teammates are all in Canada together – they’re at the gym and their lives haven’t changed,” she said. The last time Hettinga drove through Canada doing legal business on the mainland, she felt a pang of sadness as she passed her favorite Greek restaurant. She and her husband went there every Friday; they know the servers by name and the servers know their usual commands. But now she would be forbidden from picking up a take-away order. “For us at Point Roberts, we are very limited due to the lack of services and the ability to cross,” she said. “I have a feeling we are under house arrest.”
The pandemic and the resulting border closure have also strained normally friendly relations between Canadians and Americans. “We have a huge problem in our country with the spread of the virus, and that is why there is a lot of fear associated with the Americans,” said Hettinga. There were reports in the local newspaper, All Point Bulletin, of Canadians harassing drivers with American license plates, and now that Canada has set up hotlines to report alleged Americans violating the rules, US drivers feel unwelcome. Hettinga’s son will be going to school in Canada this fall and she is concerned that he will be bullied as an American.
In some ways, however, the city’s isolation has been a boon to its residents. With few people leaving or entering the area, the city is isolated from the rising case numbers in other parts of Washington. The fire department offers COVID-19 tests, and with 500 tests completed, no one has tested positive yet. Many say they are grateful for the natural beauty of their city; While the lack of tourism is bad for business, it means that residents often have the whole beach to themselves. And Swenson, the historian at Point Roberts, said he appreciated the ingenuity of his neighbors who are still finding ways to see each other across the international divide. At Point Roberts, the Roosevelt Way runs parallel to the border, and a few Canadian cul-de-sacs in neighboring Tsawwassen lead there from the other side, with only a curb separating the two countries. “You will see someone bring a garden chair and sit on the Canadian side while an American sits on the other side – six feet apart – to catch up,” said Swenson. “It’s a scene that can only be found in Point Roberts.”
Jane C. Hu is an editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes on science, technology and nature. She lives in Seattle. Email them at [email protected] or send a letter to the editors. Follow @jane_c_hu