Watson Lake, Yukon, embraces local steps towards physical distancing

Residents in Watson Lake, Yukon, support local businesses' efforts to keep them safe from the coronavirus. But some worry about the travellers passing through on the Alaska Highway.

Residents support local efforts to keep them safe from coronavirus, but worry about highway travellers

A sign greets customers entering the Super A grocery store in Watson Lake. 'We can protect each other if we all do our part.' (Chris Irvin)

The first thing residents in Watson Lake, Yukon, might see when they approach the local Super A grocery store is some shopping carts at the entrance way.

But if they don't see any carts, that means the store has reached its 10-at-a-time customer limit and they'll have to wait to enter. It's owner Chris Irvin's way of maintaining physical distance inside the store. 

Each customer takes a cart. When they're done with it, it goes back to the front and gets a disinfecting wipe. 

Irvin said he's hired two people to make sure customers respect the limit, and keep the carts clean.

The Watson Lake Super A has 10 shopping carts out front. Each person coming in takes one. If they're all gone nobody else enters until a cart is returned. (Chris Irvin)

A large poster board also greets customers as they enter, with information about COVID-19 and a message, "We can protect each other if we all do our part."

Irvin also owns the Tags gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It's a popular stop for Alaska Highway travellers passing through Watson Lake.

He says Tags has tape on the floor to keep people spaced. The restaurant is take-out only, and gas customers are encouraged to use a card and pay at the pump instead of inside.

Irvin has also asked staff to encourage people to leave if they display COVID-19 symptoms.

Irvin says the measures he's taken at this businesses are popular, as people in Watson Lake are concerned about the coronavirus.

"They're all very respectful and actually very happy," he said.

Most of the highway travellers at the gas station are also respectful, he said, although some truck drivers and Americans think the measures are "way over the top."

"But I think it's better safe than sorry," Irvin said. "It's much more important that my customers stay safe and that my staff stay safe."

As of Friday, there were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yukon. The territorial government has declared a state of emergency related to the pandemic. 

Alaskans still passing through

Watson Lake Mayor Cheryl O'Brien wants further measures to protect her community — she wants Americans banned from the highway. She sees them heading to Alaska or coming from there.

"So I know that they are hitting every community along the Alaska Highway, which is quite worrisome for myself, mayor and council and for the community as a whole. I get a lot of questions and concerns about how come they're still coming through," said O'Brien.

She said it's a big worry because Watson Lake has a large number of elderly people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Watson Lake Mayor Cheryl O'Brien says Americans travelling between Alaska and the lower 48 states should not be allowed to use the Alaska Highway. (Dave Croft/CBC)

Pat Living in Yukon's Health and Social Services department said the decision by Yukon health officials is that Americans going either way can continue to drive through if they are on their way home.

People heading north on the highway will be stopped before they enter Watson Lake and told they can stop for gas and also asked to respect physical distancing, she said.

The Canada Border Services Agency says Alaskans who are heading home can pass through Canada, but they're given information at the Canadian border detailing what they should do.

The travellers should get food at drive-throughs and pay at the gas pump when possible. If they have to stay at a hotel or motel, they should self-isolate in their room.

O'Brien said local people, however, feel much better about welcoming people living across the B.C.-Yukon boundary.

She said if Yukon was to close its border, as the N.W.T. has done, people living in the B.C. communities of Lower Post, Fireside, Good Hope Lake and Dease Lake should be allowed to continue using Watson Lake as their service centre.

O'Brien said an issue in Watson Lake that needs more attention during the pandemic is housing. She said the homeless are vulnerable and there are people living in overcrowded homes.


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