COVID Travel Bans Are a Death Sentence for This Remote Border Town
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 woul
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