British Columbia

Latitudes and attitudes: How COVID-19 is impacting border towns in the West

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some stark similarities, and vast differences, between Canadian and American border towns.

With the border closed, the impact on tourism in border towns in both B.C. and Montana has been significant

The border crossing near Eureka, Mont., has seen a 99 per cent drop in traffic since the U.S.-Canada border was closed to non-essential travel in mid-March. (Nate Hegyi/Mountain West News Bureau )

Latitudes and Attitudes is a collaboration between CBC Radio and Mountain West News Bureau in the U.S. that explores how the closure of the Canada-U.S. border is impacting towns that rely on tourists from the neighbouring country. 

The Canada-U.S. border crossing south of Fernie, B.C., is quiet these days; there are no buses or vans packed with mountain bikes and vacationing families headed into the neighbouring country for summer fun. 

The lack of international travel, due to the closure of the Canada-U.S. border amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has business owners who rely on tourism dollars from visitors crossing the border planning for the worst.

During any other summer, David Clarke, owner of the First & Last Chance Bar and Duty Free Store on the border crossing's U.S. side, said a lineup in either direction is the norm.

But lately, Clarke's store has been mostly empty.

"No traffic hardly at all," he said.

David Clarke says his duty free sales are nonexistent after the U.S.-Canada border closed in mid-March. (Nate Hegyi/Mountain West News Bureau)

Paul Samycia started a river guiding company and fly shop in Fernie, B.C., two decades ago. More than two thirds of his clients are American.

With the border closed, he said the season is almost a writeoff.

"By the end of July we normally have about 220 trips under our belt," he said. "This year, we are going to be lucky if we break 50."

That's the story for many businesses in border towns that rely on tourists from out of country to bolster the economy on both sides of the international border. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some stark similarities, and vast differences, in attitudes among residents of Canadian and American border towns.

The Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to shut down non-essential traffic between the countries on March 21. Earlier this month, that agreement was extended into August. And as COVID-19 cases continue to rise at staggering rates in some states, it's unclear when the border might re-open. 

"Much of what we have experienced revolves around the anxiety of the unknown," said Gordon Sombrowski, who owns two hotels in Fernie and runs a third in Spokane, Wash. 

With Canadians and Americans unable to travel across land border crossings for pleasure trips, Sombrowski is planning for the worst-case scenario — a closed land border for up to two years. It would be devastating for Fernie's tourism-based economy, he said.

Similarly, Clarke worries about how his business will fare if the closure continues.

"All the revenue streams are down," Clarke said. "The duty free is nonexistent and basically, what we put in the bank from the duty free gets us through the winter."

Despite the decrease in revenue for many businesses, Fernie mayor Ange Qualizza said local business owners she's spoken with don't want the border reopened until the United States has the pandemic under control.

The U.S. currently has the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the world, as well as the highest number of deaths. Washington state, which borders B.C., has recorded more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,400 deaths as of Wednesday. Montana, which borders B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan, has recorded far fewer — nearly 3,000 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the state, as well as more than 40 deaths as of Wednesday.

"They don't want to put Canada or Fernie in harm's way," Qualizza said. 

"They'd love to see their business model return; however, not at the expense of safety."

Ange Qualizza, mayor of Fernie, B.C., said local businesses are more concerned about the safety of the community than opening the border for tourists. (Bob Keating/CBC)

South of the border, business owner LaVerna Munro agrees. Her gift shop in Eureka, Mont., has seen a 60 per cent decrease in earnings without Canadians spending money there, but she believes closing the border was the right thing to do.

"Our numbers are way higher than them, and I can understand where they don't want us up there," she said, referring to Canada.

But there are people, primarily in the U.S., who believe the threat of the virus is overblown.

"What I've seen is an agenda being worked by the fearmongers," said Matthew Barrett, owner of Montana Shipping Depot. 

Those fearmongers, he said, include everyone from liberal politicians to the media to the United States's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, he said.

Barrett makes the majority of his money through Canadians who ship packages to his business at a cheaper U.S. price and then cross the border to pick them up. 

The influx of American tourists that visit Fernie, B.C., is non-existent this year as the border between Canada and the U.S. remains closed. (Bob Keating/CBC)

He estimates his revenues are down 90 per cent because of the border closure.

The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed more than 143,000 deaths nationwide due to COVID-19. In Canada, just under 9,000 people have died from the virus so far. 

As of Wednesday, B.C. had 3,362 cases of COVID-19 in the province, 285 of which were active. Residents of the province are not discouraged from travelling within B.C. anymore, and people from neighbouring Alberta are beginning to return for summer holidays.

But it isn't the same. 

Jikke Gyorki, executive officer of Tourism Fernie, said visits are down between 10 and 20 per cent, which is about the percentage of American tourists that visit in a typical year.

"We'll see a U.S. visitor spend up to $600 per day, easily, per person," she said. "Whereas a regional traveller will probably spend $150 to $200 a day."

With files from CBC’s Bob Keating and Nate Hegyi of Mountain West News Bureau

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