Remote American outpost, cut off by COVID-19, gets a ferry service
SEATTLE — A small and remote enclave of 1,300 Americans has gained its first regular access to the rest of the United States in five months, after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the border with Canada to all but essential travel.
For a century and a half, the tiny community of Point Roberts, Wash., has been a geographic oddity. First founded by Icelandic migrants in the 1800s, it sits on the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, a rural bedroom community from which many residents commute to jobs in nearby Vancouver.
Point Roberts juts just south of the 49th Parallel that marks the border between the United States and Canada, making it American soil that is accessible only by traveling through Canadian territory.
In ordinary times, residents drive a few miles to the largest mall in British Columbia, and the United States mainland is just a 40-minute drive to the border crossing in Blaine. Some residents run lucrative package delivery services for Canadians who want to order products from Amazon.com, often a cheaper option than ordering something from Amazon.ca, even after border duties.
But the coronavirus pandemic has been anything but ordinary in Point Roberts. A joint agreement between the United States and Canada closed the border in March, which also applied to the isolated community even though it has no coronavirus cases.
“Many of us, in fact most, haven’t crossed the border since March. We’ve been holed up here,” said Dan Schroeder, a local real estate agent. “At first, we sort of had trouble accepting that we wouldn’t be able to go into Canada, and then it’s just something that we’ve had to adapt to and get used to.”
Residents are allowed to drive from Point Roberts to the United States mainland for medical appointments, and to Canada for some supplies, but they are questioned sharply at the border crossing.
Supplies at the lone grocery store in town have run low at times. Ground turkey disappeared from the shelves for a few months. Then chicken breasts ran out. The hardware store sold toilet paper for a dollar a roll.
On the few trips allowed into Canada, some Point Roberts residents have been harassed, their Washington State license plates marking them as outsiders to Canadians wary of the virus exploding south of their border.
“Until Covid, it was ideal. And then suddenly, shockingly, the thing we never thought would happen happened, and we could no longer access either Canada or our very own mainland,” said Pamala Sheppard, a 30-year resident of Point Roberts who runs Auntie Pam’s Country Store. “Now, people in Canada will report you to the RCMP. They will leave notes on your car. People’s cars have been keyed. They’ve gotten quite aggressive about wanting to protect their country. Which, you can’t blame them.”
Canada has reported 127,000 cases of the coronavirus. Just 5,300 of those cases have come in British Columbia. Washington State, with about one-fifth as many residents as Canada and a population about 2.5 million larger than British Columbia, has reported 75,000 cases.
A letter published this week in the Delta Optimist, a community newspaper on the Canadian side of the border, showed some Canadians have little sympathy.
“Opening the Point Roberts border puts all of us at risk,” wrote Roger Emsley. “If U.S. residents are allowed into Canada, who will ensure they don’t go to our stores, restaurants, use our community facilities? So they go to Blaine, Bellingham, etc. get infected and then bring that back and infect Tsawwassen residents. We have made sacrifices. It is unacceptable that we are now put at risk.”
To alleviate the strain on Point Roberts residents, the Port of Bellingham and the Whatcom Transportation Authority this week debuted a free passenger ferry across Boundary Bay to Blaine. The once-weekly trip leaves Point Roberts at 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday and returns at 4 p.m. The first sailing sold out almost immediately. The next sailing, on September 1, is already full.
Officials said they may add a second sailing if demand remains high. But because it is a passenger-only ferry, residents cannot bring their cars to stock up at big box stores.
“For a lot of people, it is a lifeline,” Schroeder said.
The new ferry will not make up for lost business in a town that grows exponentially every tourist season. People with vacation homes, family members of permanent residents and those coming to pick up their Amazon packages have all been turned back at the border.
Some of the package companies have shut down operations until the border is reopened. A gas station that sold fuel for far less than the going price in Canada has seen its business drop to a fraction of what is typical. Sheppard said her business makes a few hundred dollars a day, down from a typical haul of up to $7,000 a week during peak season.
“My customer base is probably, I don’t know, 300 people. Down from in the summer we have up to 7,500 people,” Sheppard said of her nine-year-old store. “Our game plan was to sell Auntie Pam’s Country Store at year ten. And now I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Students are also struggling to get back to school. Point Roberts has only one elementary school, serving kindergarten through third grade. Students who attend school in Blaine or a community just across the border in British Columbia are barred from crossing.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has written to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for an exemption for those students. The local fire chief has written to Trudeau and President Trump, in search of a solution.
But the border remains closed, until at least September 22. Some students are considering relocating, either to Blaine or to British Columbia, even if their parents cannot come with them.
For other residents, the ferry service is a chance to get out, see family and visit the mainland after months of isolation.
“People can get the hell out of here if they’re losing their minds. The mental health aspect is substantial,” Sheppard said. “It’s heaven on earth except for when it’s not. And right now it’s not.”