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Border closure isolates town from rest of U.S.

Posted at 2:13 PM, Sep 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 17:53:56-04

POINT ROBERTS, Wash. -- In Point Roberts, Washington, the beauty of nature isn’t hard to find.

“The environment is unsurpassed,” said Brian Calder, director of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce. “I mean, it's a beautiful spot.”

It’s a town of about 1,000 people, where two nations meet: the U.S. and Canada.

Lately, though, people there feel more like they’re caught in the middle.

“We're surrounded by foreign territory, not part of North America, USA,” Calder said.

Point Roberts is what’s known as an “exclave.” When a 19th century treaty established the 49th parallel as part of the U.S. border with Canada, Point Roberts ended up on the American side, but cut off from the rest of the U.S. because it sits at the end of a peninsula, with Canada to the north of it.

Normally, travelling back and forth across the border isn’t an issue.

However, because of the coronavirus, the border is closed and the town – which relies on tourism – is at a standstill.

“Our traffic comes from Canada, lower mainland primarily, and that's what drives our economy. Period,” Calder said. “We have nothing internally.”

Whitney McElroy owns Breakwaters Bar & Grill, where hundreds of people usually gather for music and food. That didn’t happen this year, though. The current situation forced him to furlough all but two employees.

“We're down between 85 and 90%,” McElroy said of the grill. “By opening the border, it would considerably help this community. It would bring it back to life again, as it's pretty much dead now.”

One of the few things keeping the town alive is the lone supermarket.

“On a normal summer week, we do we see about 8,000 customers,” said Ali Hayton, who owns the Point Roberts Marketplace.

This year, business at the supermarket is down 80%. Hayton applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which helped financially, but only through July.

“I don't want a handout because those go away,” Hayton said. “I want to work for a living and the only way I can do that is if I have people able to come down here.”

Weekly testing shows that, so far, there have been no recorded cases of coronavirus in Point Roberts.

Because of its unusual location, surrounded by water on three sides and Canada to the north, the border closure isn’t just affecting businesses in Point Roberts. It’s also affecting families, in some cases, by separating them.

“People can't sustain - financially and emotionally and spiritually - this kind of stress,” said Point Roberts resident Rena Andreoli.

Andreoli and her family are dual citizens of the U.S. and Canada, who live in Point Roberts. Since the lone school in town only goes up to 3rd grade, her children, like some others there, attend nearby schools in Canada. School, though, is considered a non-essential border crossing. So, in order to continue going to her current high school in Canada, her oldest daughter moved in with friends of the family.

“By doing that to a family, we're really, we're just killing these kids,” Andreoli said. “So, we need to smarten up as a country, both countries, and look past the politics and look past all that.”

Residents believe there could be a simple solution.

“If we can have an exemption federally from both sides of the fence, then I think it would definitely ease things and make things a lot more palatable for people,” said Nic Lehoux, who lives in Point Roberts.

Recently, a twice weekly passenger ferry service and small plane service began for residents in Point Roberts. Before then, they had no other way to reach the U.S., without driving through the Canadian border and over into Washington state.

Still, the border remains closed for the foreseeable future, as the closure has been renewed every 30 days for the past six months.