British Columbia

Little relief for businesses in Point Roberts as Canada prepares to reopen its border with U.S.

With Canada reopening its borders Aug. 9 to fully vaccinated Americans, residents of Point Roberts, Wash., can celebrate their renewed ability to hop across the border. But the celebration is dampened by the fact the border won't be opening in both directions.

U.S. says it won't reopen border until at least Aug. 21, almost 2 weeks after Canadian side

The communities of Point Roberts, Wash., seen in the background, and Tsawwassen, B.C., in the foreground, are so tightly knit that in normal times residents routinely cross for errands. Pandemic rules have disrupted that. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With the Canada-U.S. border opening to fully vaccinated Americans in August, residents of Point Roberts, Wash., can celebrate their renewed ability to hop across the border to shop in Tsawwassen, B.C., or visit friends and family. 

Starting Aug. 9 at 12:01 a.m. ET, fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents in that country will be able to visit Canada without having to quarantine for two weeks.

However, the U.S. land border will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21,  meaning the handful of businesses in Point Roberts that have managed to stay open throughout the pandemic will continue to struggle for at least a couple more weeks. 

The golf course is closed. The few restaurants that remain operate on reduced hours. And the marina, which is normally packed with around 850 vessels, sits at less than a quarter of capacity.

"It's bad. It's a ghost town. You drive around, you barely see a car," says Brian Calder, chair of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce.

Foreign travellers entering Canada will need to show proof that they have been fully vaccinated with a shot approved in Canada. As well, those crossing the border still need to get a COVID-19 molecular test result before they arrive in Canada.

The community's economy, which relies heavily on Canadian shoppers, has nearly completely crumbled, shrinking by 80 per cent

Normally, the grocery store's parking lot is filled with around 300 vehicles, a mix of local and Canadian licence plates, as British Columbians shop for a deal on cheese, milk or gas. These days, there are about five.

"If Canadians can't come down, all it does is take more business away from businesses down here. It doesn't help us at all," says Ali Hayton, owner of the town's only grocery store, International Marketplace.

"It's been devastating," said Hayton.

"When you have a 38,000-square foot store that is built, staffed and stocked to serve 8,000 customers a week and you're only seeing about 800, it's really hard to stay in the black. And we have not been able to."

A map of the Lower Mainland and Washington state is shown with the border lined in black and Point Roberts highlighted in yellow.
The international border has cut this peninsula in half, turning what would otherwise be a suburb of metropolitan Vancouver into a secluded getaway in Washington state separated from the U.S. mainland. (Allison Cake/CBC)

Hayton says she has been operating her business at a loss for 17 months, keeping the doors open at her own expense. She estimates it has cost her more than $250,000 just to pay the bills and staff.

"If I close, the people in Point Roberts have no access to milk, dairy, butter, cheese, fruits and vegetables, Tylenol, Band-Aids, toilet paper. I'm the only game in town for all that stuff," she said.

"The main reason we've stayed open is I wouldn't sleep at night."

Calder says before the pandemic about 1,200 people lived in the community. Now, there are about 800.

A town in trouble

Throughout the pandemic, the town of Point Roberts has continuously petitioned both the Canadian and American federal governments to open the Point Roberts border.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote Prime Minister Trudeau requesting special travel permits allowing residents to drive directly to and from the Washington state mainland.

Last week, Inslee sent a letter to the U.S. secretary of state, calling for the reopening of the U.S.-Canada land border for non-essential travel "to provide relief for individuals and communities impacted by the prolonged closure."

The town's vaccination efforts have been a success. Calder says more than 85 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the town has only seen six COVID-19 cases, isolated to two families.

"We're not a danger to anybody," said Calder. 

Isolated and ignored

If the borders don't reopen soon, Hayton says her business won't survive. In June, she announced she had no choice but to close the only grocery store in town.

The state of Washington quickly said they would provide the store with $100,000 in funding, but Hayton says it's a temporary fix that will only help her stay open until September. 

A red car stands alone in an empty parking lot of a Point Roberts grocery store.
The parking lot at the International Marketplace grocery store in Point Roberts sits practically empty. Its owner says she hasn't earned a profit since the pandemic started. (Brian Calder)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the government is continuing to review travel restrictions.

"Any decisions about reopening travel will be guided by our public health and medical experts," she said.

"We take this incredibly seriously, but we look and are guided by our own medical experts. I wouldn't look at it through a reciprocal intention."

Calder says the once-bustling town and its businesses need help.

"What we get is nothing because we are totally and completely ignored by our own federal government," he said.

With files from Elizabeth Thompson and Catharine Tunney