The charm of living in a city like Vancouver is how close you are to everything: on five bucks of gas, you can drive from downtown to a dense, evergreen forest, a rocky beach, a Fraser Valley farm, a snow-capped mountain range, or the United States of America.
Of course, spending the day across the line hasn’t been possible since March of last year. COVID-19 has made our dreams of meandering around Bellingham at sunset, tote bag full of freshly purchased vintage records from Legendary Vinyl in one hand and a cone of Mallard ice cream in the other, all but impossible.
With the current border closure regulations still in effect until at least June 21, Canadians and Americans alike have been eagerly awaiting announcements from their governments on a possible reopening.
We’ve all been missing travelling. And not just to Mexico, Cambodia, or Hawaii. Stats show that many of us are happy with a change of scenery that comes with day-tripping to Washington State. And when we do, we tend to spend a lot of money.
Whatcom County, the region in Washington which stretches from the Salish coast to the mountain-range interior of North Cascades National Park, sits just below the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Canadians and Americans are separated by a border running through the Cascade Gateway. According to a report recently conducted by Western Washington University, the Cascade Gateway sees an average of 7.3 million Canadians cross the border in a typical year.
According to the same report, 27 percent of Canadians crossing through the Cascade Gateway travelled for recreation or vacation in 2019—and a third of those were destined for Whatcom County. Seven per cent of Whatcom County’s homeowners are Canadians or dual citizens.
But whether Canadians stay all summer long for an all-American vacation, for a Canadian holiday long weekend, or just for a day trip, one thing is for certain: tourism is a huge part of the county’s yearly income.
Since the border closed, the cities and towns in Whatcom County have been hit hard. On top of staying open during a pandemic, which is costly all on its own, these American businesses are also suffering from a significant loss of Canadian clientele.
Blaine Chamber of Commerce office manager Carroll Solomon said restaurants in the just-across-the-border-community are “hanging on by their fingernails”.
In Blaine, which has a population of 5,313, two restaurants have been forced to close indefinitely in the past year--one being the only Chinese restaurant and the other a favorite fish and chips spot.
Both establishments, leasing their spaces, had tough choices to make.
“So here you are, and you’re about to sign a year’s lease, and a pandemic has hit,” Solomon told the Straight in an interview. “They had to think, ‘How long is it going to last? If it lasts a year, why are we signing a lease to pay rent for a year that we would be closed anyway?’ ”
With Canadians not able to cross the border to spend money, many residents of Blaine have taken it upon themselves to help the local economy, Solomon said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve said ‘I don’t normally eat out, but I’m going to eat out one day a week to support the local restaurants.’ ”
Other communities in Whatcom County have also tried to inspire the “stay local, buy local” mindset. But it’s much easier to support a restaurant than distinctly tourist-focussed operations.
“Our hospitality industry has suffered,” said Jennifer Walters, a member of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “In our community, we were able to rally around and support our local food and beverage–but that’s harder to do when you have a hotel. I don’t think we’re the hardest hit as far as a percentage of revenue, but [there is] definitely a bigger loss in specific industries. Our galleries and our museums….you know, hospitality, tourism, those little tours on the bay–these have been very affected by the lack of Canadian visitors.”
It’s not just a loss of revenue that has negatively impacted American border-lining communities. There’s been a disruption to everyday life as well.
The most extreme example of this is Point Roberts, the small, American pene-exclave on the U.S. tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula. It’s a community which has, in the past, been jokingly described as America’s “best gated community” because making the trek to Point Roberts from the rest of the U.S. requires two U.S.-Canada border crossings. During a pandemic when said borders are closed, the joke isn’t so funny.
Point Roberts, now being dubbed as a “ghost town in the making” by Canadian and American news outlets, has seen more than half of its 1,300 residents relocate to Whatcom County during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this isolated community, there is no dentist, veterinarian, pharmacy, or hospital. Even though the nearest hospital (in Delta, B.C.) is 20 minutes away, the border being shut down means, for Point Roberts residents, the closest American hospital is in Bellingham—a two-hour emergency ferry trip away, with sailings dependent on weather.
While Point Roberts is the most unique and radical example of the border closure severely impacting a community, it’s not the only instance.
For example, in Blaine, more than half of the package depots and delivery hubs have closed.
“We had, like, 25 packaging stores where people would receive UPS deliveries–and they majorly would serve Canadians,” Solomon said. “Canadian businesses order a product from the U.S. and it’s faster and easier to pick it up here and walk it through the border rather than try to have it delivered up there. Some of the UPS may not deliver to the address in Canada.”
With the border being closed and Canadians are no longer able to pick up their packages, however, only six stories remain open.
“They do have U.S. customers too, but a lot of them catered exclusively to Canadian customers who obviously can’t come down now,” Solomon said, adding: “I have friends in Canada who have had me pick their product up for them and put it in my garage, because they can’t come and get it.”
Everyday living has been modified, revenue has sunk, and, on top of all this, folks on both sides of the Peace Arch border just seem to miss each other.
Jack Lamb, owner of Aslan Brewery in Bellingham, said: “We miss Canadians so much. Everybody from up there is so nice, and they’re always coming down, ready to try something new and appreciative of our art and our craft. I mean, on full days, we would see 20 percent of our sales be from Canada…. We appreciate the business, but also the demeanor and the respect as well is much appreciated.”
And while we plan our next getaway to as many breweries and bookstores on the U.S. coast as we can, it’s apparent Canadians aren’t the only ones dreaming of crossing the border.
Whether it was hiking the Squamish Chief, taking in a concert, or even just grabbing a lunch in White Rock, hopping over the border into B.C. was a top wish of all Americans interviewed for this story.
“I’m looking forward to the day I can go get some dim sum in Vancouver and go for a bike ride in Squamish, and support the local businesses up there,” Lamb said.
Clearly, the Lower Mainland and Whatcom County are tight-knit friends as well as neighbours. As soon as we can safely reconnect, the better.