British Columbia

U.S. border towns rocked by COVID-19 border closures

Cars with B.C. licence plates are so rare in Blaine, Wash., these days that immigration lawyer Len Saunders does a double take every time he sees one.

Businesses in Point Roberts, Wash., and Blaine, Wash., struggle without Canadian customers

The Peace Arch international Canadian border crossing is pictured from the Peace Arch Historical State Park in Blaine, Wash., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Cars with B.C. licence plates are so rare in Blaine, Wash., these days that immigration lawyer Len Saunders does a double take every time he sees one.

Saunders says the city just south of Surrey with a population of about 5,500 people has turned into a ghost town since the border closed in March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There are no Canadians in this town," he said. "For a town along the border that relies on Canadian customers, it's shocking to see."

Prior to the pandemic, Blaine and Point Roberts, Wash., which shares a border with Tsawwassen, were both crawling with British Columbians searching for cheap gas, groceries and mail services, where they can pick up packages ordered online from American retailers.

Blaine city manager Michael Jones says after five months without Canadian visitors, the municipality's finances have taken a wallop.

"We're forecasting about an 11 per cent reduction in our general fund revenue, which is primarily driven by tax dollars," he said.

"We're currently at the same staffing numbers that we were at the beginning of the year but we expect to see some very significant budget cuts next year."

Immigration lawyer Len Saunders says Blaine has been a ghost town since the border closed.

Point Roberts

Point to Point Parcel in Point Roberts was thriving before COVID-19 hit, but the border closure forced manager Beth Calder to lay off seven of her 10 employees.

Calder says on a good day, she now receives about 50 packages a day, which is down from the 400 that were coming through her warehouse six days a week earlier this year.

"It's not something we can survive for extended periods of time," she said. "We are definitely not making enough money to cover all of our expenses."

The border will remain closed for non-essential travel at least until Aug. 21 and she fears it may stretch into the holiday shopping season.

"Our best time of the year is from September through to the end of December," she said. "That usually helps to carry us through the next few months of the next year."

A sign at the Peace Arch border's shared Canada-U.S. park indicates where the U.S. section of the park ends. (submitted by Len Saunders)

Closures

Calder says she isn't aware of any competitors that have gone out of businesses during the pandemic, but many have drastically cut their hours or closed temporarily.

In Blaine, Saunders says he's aware of at least three restaurants that have gone under.

"You can go to a restaurant in this area and there's no waiting, even on a Saturday," he said. "It's a ghost town."

Washington state has a population of 7.6 million, slightly higher than B.C.'s 5.1 million but the state has 64,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 15 times higher than in B.C.

Jones says even if the border reopens, Canadians may be reluctant to travel to the U.S. if infection rates remain high.

"I can appreciate a Canadian perspective where you have a much lower count," he said. "It makes me wonder why would someone come visit a place with a higher risk of the virus." 

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

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