COVID Travel Bans Are a Death Sentence for This Remote Border Town
One of America's most isolated communities has struggled to weather the pandemic.
Point Roberts, Washington, has always been isolated.
Nineteenth-century cartographers are to blame for that. As Great Britain and the United States squabbled over what would become the Canadian border, mappers chose the 49th parallel as the boundary. The whole of Vancouver Island went to the British, but everything else south of the line was to be American.
Cartographers didn't realize that a tiny peninsula jutted into American territory where the 49th parallel crosses Boundary Bay, about as far west as you can get in the lower 48. At just five square miles, the inconveniently American land became Point Roberts. Today the community boasts around 1,200 people, one grocery store, and a glimmering marina filled with boats. Connected by land only to Canada, residents must cross into British Columbia and back into what locals call "the other side" (mainland Washington state) to reach just about everything—doctors, schools, and veterinarians.
Crossing two international borders to travel from one part of your state to another is difficult enough during normal times. During a pandemic, it's impossible.
Point Roberts suddenly found itself cut off from both Canada and the mainland U.S. as officials in the two countries buttoned up their land crossings. Residents were stranded and businesses began to shrivel without the revenue brought by Canadian property-owners and visitors.
"It's been devastation," says Brian Calder, president of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce. "This time of the year, we would have around 4–5,000 people here. Now we have 800."
A popular summer destination for people in the greater Vancouver area, Point Roberts' economy is driven by Canadians, who own approximately 1,800 of the community's 2,400 homes, according to Calder. Their homes and lawns, now untended for 18 months, have fallen into disrepair. Canadians who long drifted over the border for cheaper gas and parcel pickup have entirely vanished. "Our market is down 90 percent," says Calder. There's no traffic on the peninsula. Parking lots that once held hundreds of cars now contain just a handful.
Relief has evaded Point Roberts. While every border community has suffered due to restrictions on international movement, visitors and revenue from the same country can still generally flow through. Point Roberts survives on business from Canada. Town officials raised $50,000 and offered to buy and operate a testing site at the Canadian border if the White House would grant them an exception to the closure and allow Canadians to enter. They even offered to vaccinate Canadians who own property in Point Roberts.
The community has gone to great lengths to stay safe during the pandemic. Around 85 percent of the population is vaccinated. It didn't even report its first COVID case until February 2021. In spite of the town's diligence and offers to test and vaccinate Canadians at its own expense, proposals have been met with silence from the federal government.
"We're getting a government attitude of 'one-size-fits-all,' and it doesn't—certainly not with Point Roberts," says Calder. "It's totally unique in many ways. We don't have the government giving us a unique solution."
Businesses in Point Roberts are feeling the heat. Ali Hayton is the owner of International Marketplace, the town's sole grocery store. She says it's the only place in Point Roberts where locals can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, or dairy products.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hayton has continued to operate International Marketplace at a great personal cost. "She's kept it open for 18 months, losing $30,000 a month and supporting the community with no help from the government," says Calder. Hayton was hesitant to accept government aid, explaining that she favored an end to the closure: "We just want our border open. We want our customers back." But as the closure was extended again and again, she contacted state officials for relief. Washington Governor Jay Inslee agreed to send her $100,000 in relief funds. During a normal week in July before the pandemic, Hayton says, she would've had revenue of over $300,000.
"I can't keep subsidizing this," she says. "I just don't understand why either government thought it was the responsibility of a private citizen, a private business owner, to subsidize the needs of all those people for this length of time without offering any assistance." Though the government money was welcome, it was a temporary, limited way of addressing a problem with an obvious solution.
Still, Hayton knows the community needs her grocery store's service. International Marketplace has cut hours but is still open daily. "We didn't wanna close any one day because, you know, we're the only option for everybody on the Point."
Restaurants have been ravaged, serving a fraction of their normal audience. They're "open four hours a day, just on the weekends," explains Calder. The town's marina hosts 180 of its normal 850 boats. Families that have owned homes in the Point for four generations have been barred from visiting for the first time ever, two summers running. American residents have only been able to access the mainland via a passenger ferry to Bellingham, which involves a two-hour journey on the open water each way.
The "plight of the Point," as Calder calls it, may well worsen as the Canadian government opens its border to vaccinated Americans—a move made effective this past Monday. Disconnected from their neighboring communities for a year and a half, residents of Point Roberts are eager to get out of town to shop and eat elsewhere. "Up until now, I've kind of had a captive audience," says Hayton. "I don't begrudge any of them a bit for wanting to get out of the Point and shop elsewhere. But now that they do have that option, I'm watching the bottom line really carefully this week."
The U.S. border could theoretically open to Canadians on August 21, but Hayton has her doubts—both because there is no vaccination verification system in place and because the closure has been extended multiple times. "Canadians want to come down here and spend their money, and we're not letting them," she says. "They could rescue our economy so quickly, if [the U.S. government] would just let them come down."
Everyone has experienced the pandemic differently, but it's united people in tiny Point Roberts. "When something hits the community hard, all pretenses are dropped," Calder says. "They all come together for that, even if they were mad at each other, they overcome that in a dire circumstance."
Life in Point Roberts involves tradeoffs. Locals find the isolation worth the rewards—marvelous beaches on three sides, ample green spaces, and land that still feels like a sleepy holiday community, even as the nearby urban centers in Washington and British Columbia swell.
But many residents of Point Roberts have left the community during the pandemic in search of employment. The already-small population is fading. The unlikely town has an uncertain future.
"None of us ever imagined a situation like this," says Hayton. "It's gonna be hard to imagine how we come out of it."