• The Star Staff

‘I am stuck until that border opens’: Marooned in paradise

By Ruth Fremson

A home that long seemed like paradise is lately beginning to feel more like Alcatraz.

A 5-square-mile drop of land clinging to the southern end of British Columbia with views of snow-capped Mount Baker to the east and the San Juan Islands to the south, Point Roberts is detached from the rest of Washington state. Not far south of Vancouver, it is a relic of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, which set the northern border of what was then the Oregon Territory at the 49th parallel. To reach the rest of the United States from Point Roberts requires two international border crossings with a 24-mile drive in between.

The isolation is both a blessing and a curse during a pandemic. Despite having no coronavirus cases to date, Point Roberts may be the last place in the United States to return to normal because the Canadian government has extended its international border closure each month since it shut March 21. Only people with reasons deemed essential are allowed to cross, and the order has been strictly enforced.

The few businesses in Point Roberts depend on cross-border commerce. Canadian tourists and seasonal residents, who quadruple the population during the summer months, generate 90% of their annual income. Some of the 1,300 yearlong residents fear that if the closure continues, they may never reopen.

Brian Calder, 79, whose family arrived in 1895, predicts that “Point Roberts is going to be a ghost town by mid-next year.”

Parks anchor the region’s four corners. Children wander among cedar trees along an Enchanted Forest Trail decorated with figures of gnomes and fairies. Whales can be seen from the shore and deer roam past cottages edged by flowers and protected by thorny blackberry bushes. People wave to one another as they drive past and catch up in the only supermarket.

For generations, Canadians have traveled south to their seaside homes. They dock their boats in the marina, golf at the public course and dine in the restaurants. Others cross the border into Point Roberts for cheaper gas and milk. They pick up parcels, many from Amazon, that are delivered to one of the seven shipping stores — avoiding costly international fees.

Allan White, one of the few Canadians spending this summer in Point Roberts, stood at Maple Beach Park looking north to his condo building in the distance. He thinks the border should be closed and is prepared to abide by the 14-day quarantine when he goes home.

“I think Canadians have done a much better job of handling the COVID than the Americans, which is a very strange thing to say because they are the smartest, most powerful country in the world that we have ever known and they’re with Brazil,” he said.

Most Canadians have stayed away. The marina is at less than half of its normal capacity; many Canadian owners moved their boats out when the border closed. Coyotes wander along the brown fairways on the golf course. Weeds poke 2 feet high through gravel driveways of shuttered homes. Only the Saltwater Cafe is open during the week and that may not last long, according to its owner, Tamra Hansen, who continues to operate at a loss.

If all the businesses close, she said, “none of the young people will have anywhere to work and they are going to leave. It’s going to end up being a retirement community.”

Point Bob, as the locals call it, has always had a cross-cultural feel. Many children go to school across the border in Tsawwassen, a 10-minute drive, or are bused to Blaine, Washington, 25 miles away. Residents partake in Vancouver’s diverse cultural scene, attending the symphony and theater. They are grateful that the virus has not touched them. At first they laughed when news reports described it as the safest place in America. As the border closure has been repeatedly extended, that concept is wearing thin.

When it was announced that children would not be allowed to cross the border to attend school, parents banded together in a letter-writing campaign, joining others in the community already petitioning government officials to recognize the area’s unique situation. Gov. Jay Inslee also jumped in, recently sending a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in hopes of finding a solution for the residents of Point Roberts.

It has been heartbreaking for Ashley and Jordan Strub to realize how much they took for granted. They live with their two young sons in a house with a wide front porch surrounded by mature fruit trees and dozens of chickens. Before the coronavirus, they crossed the border frequently, to go to the gym, to shop or just to socialize with friends. Some of their friends are leaving Point Roberts for the year in order to keep their children in school.

Strub, 42, said she felt like her community was being ripped apart. The couple are dismayed by reports of neighbors who have been harassed or who had their cars, with Washington license plates, vandalized when they did cross into Canada.

Daryl Marquette, who owns TSB Shipping Plus along with his wife, Bobbie, said, “99% of our customers are Canadian so that’s why we are reliant on the border opening. Without them, we don’t have any business.”

The Marquettes were so proud when they became successful enough to offer health insurance to their staff. After the border closed, they let their 10 employees go.

“With absolutely no income we couldn’t continue to keep paying for that,” Marquette said. “Telling our employees that they had to buy their own health insurance was one of the worst days ever.”

She worries about them, knowing some have had to turn to a food bank for help.

Scott Elliston, 44, a former TSB Shipping employee, gets angry when he hears politicians say that unemployment is a disincentive to work. It is rough now that the extra $600 in weekly federal benefits has been phased out. He and his wife have depleted their savings and had to borrow money from family.

“I can’t find another job because crossing the border for work is not essential either,” he wrote in an email. “So I am stuck until that border opens. It’s getting a bit scary.

“I try not to let my wife see how much this is eating me. I am trying to stay strong. But even stone cracks.”

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