BELLINGHAM — When they spoke by phone from opposite sides of the U.S.-Canada border Tuesday night, Mo Sangha and his brothers, Norm and Baldev, skipped the usual pleasantries and cut right to the chase: Are we now “nonessential?”

That remained an open question for the Sanghas, who like many friends and neighbors in the Sikh communities of rural Whatcom County and British Columbia’s lower mainland, suddenly saw normally open borders become potentially imposing walls.

Confusion, uncertainty, and to some degree, resignation reigned on both sides of the border Wednesday in the wake of a joint announcement by U.S. and Canadian officials that the border would be closed to all “nonessential” travel in an attempt to slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2.

Impacts extended beyond family ties to economic angst over border traffic that fuels U.S.-Canada trade and retail shopping. About 75% of border traffic between British Columbia and Washington state is Canadians coming south to shop, according to estimates.

More than 14 million such likely “nonessential” trips were made into the U.S. through border stations at Blaine, Lynden, Sumas and Point Roberts in 2018, many of those believed to be shopping trips either to retail stores — or, increasingly, U.S.-based post offices or mail services with boxes rented by Canadians to receive online goods.

As workers brace for the economic fallout of the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday announced a 30-day statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants, among other measures intended to provide relief for workers and businesses.

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Inslee didn’t provide much new information about the new crossing restrictions, but described the closure as part of “hard national decisions” to stem the spread of the virus.

“I do think it is helpful for all of us to not think of this as any one people’s or nation’s problem,” Inslee said, adding later, “This is not just a Canadian problem, it is not just an American problem, it’s not just some Chinese problem, this is a problem for all humanity.”

More than 1,100 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Washington state, and 66 people have died from the illness, according to state figures released Wednesday afternoon.

Mo Sangha, owner of Mountain View Berries in Everson, Whatcom County, supports the move to temporarily close the U.S.-Canada border to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many Whatcom County and British Columbia residents cross the border for work or other reasons. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Mo Sangha, owner of Mountain View Berries in Everson, Whatcom County, supports the move to temporarily close the U.S.-Canada border to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many Whatcom County and British Columbia residents cross the border for work or other reasons. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Unclear exemptions

While commercial trucks and other commerce shipments are specifically exempted from the order, the broader extent of its reach remained unclear to residents who cross the border frequently, either for social reasons or to operate family businesses.

Some 20 families in Whatcom County’s Sikh community, which numbers about 4,000, have family members in British Columbia, said Sangha, who operates a family commercial blueberry farm on Hannegan Road between Bellingham and Lynden. Many are farmers with operations on both sides of the border; others live on one side and conduct business, such as home construction, on the other.

“I don’t cross the border much, but my brothers both cross every day,” Sangha said. The brothers live in Abbottsford, British Columbia, and have mulled heading south to the U.S. as soon as their crossing status was determined, possibly moving in with their brother to avoid getting stranded.

The border was on the minds of Sikh community members Wednesday. Most were already communicating only by phone because of social-distancing guidelines. Local Sikh temples, which also serve as de facto community centers, were closed last week until further notice.

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“Everybody’s scared,” Sangha said, not just about mobility, but the spreading virus and, looking ahead, to the community lifeblood of summertime agriculture. There is broad acceptance, however, that the restrictions are necessary to help curb the impacts of the pandemic, Sangha emphasized.

Most of the local Sikh farmers grow blueberries and raspberries. Some growers in Whatcom, which leads the nation in production of both crops, also process and distribute produce grown in British Columbia. Like many industries, the coming berry season now seems threatened not only by border issues, but likely challenges in finding laborers to harvest crops, Sangha said.

Jiao Wang, from White Rock, British Columbia, walks through the Peace Arch monument past the words, “May These Gates Never Be Closed” at the Blaine border crossing. The border is being temporarily closed to nonessential travel to slow the spread of novel coronavirus. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Jiao Wang, from White Rock, British Columbia, walks through the Peace Arch monument past the words, “May These Gates Never Be Closed” at the Blaine border crossing. The border is being temporarily closed to nonessential travel to slow the spread of novel coronavirus. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

What’s “nonessential”?

Satpal Sidhu, the Whatcom County executive, echoed concerns about border crossings, saying it remained unclear what “nonessential” meant in the mind of federal border officials. Days before the announcement, after Canada first discussed closing its borders to noncitizens, local government had met with border officials from both nations to iron out crossing issues under the coronavirus-inspired restrictions.

High on that list was Point Roberts, a waterfront U.S. enclave connected to British Columbia, and the movement of health care and other important workers between Washington and Canada, Sidhu said.

Whatcom County officials were specifically concerned about several hundred physicians and health care workers who live in British Columbia, work in Whatcom County and cross the border almost daily. Those workers were advised to obtain and carry letters of employment along with their residency credentials when crossing the border. But that was before Tuesday’s order.

“It’s too early to say what directives will come from the Department of Homeland Security as well as Canadian federal authorities,” Sidhu said.

Residents of Point Roberts must first cross into interior British Columbia before reaching the main U.S. border. Round trips to the U.S. require four border stops.

Many Point Roberts residents have doctors and other critical services in Bellingham, and local officials were considering options including small planes and boats — perhaps even the City of Bellingham’s fireboat — to provide an emergency ferry service between Point Roberts and Blaine, Sidhu said.

Point Roberts residents contacted Tuesday said they are accustomed to border difficulties and expected the new restrictions to further ensconce travel warnings already in place because of concerns over spread of the virus.

“I have children who live in Canada,” said Jackie Gibilterra, 66, who lives with her husband, John, 74, on South Beach Road. “I cannot go visit them and they cannot come visit me because that’s not essential travel. If they are dying, then yes, I believe I would be allowed to cross, and if I was dying, I believe they would be allowed to cross to see me as well.”

Gibilterra was hopeful that border crossings for medical appointments and other services would still be allowed.

Christopher Carleton, fire chief at Whatcom County District 5, said he expects exemptions for travel to medical appointments, law enforcement and other emergency services. A spokesman for Inslee echoed that prediction Wednesday.

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But, “As it starts to take hold, there’s going to be some confusion,” such as with people trying to cross the border who haven’t followed the news, said Robert Hamilton, the governor’s adviser for trade policy.

Point Roberts has a small medical clinic but it’s only open three days a week, so some additional boat service to the U.S. mainland would be useful, Gibilterra said.

About 75% of border traffic between British Columbia and Washington state is Canadians coming south to shop, according to researchers’ estimates. Those crossings have now come to a halt. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
About 75% of border traffic between British Columbia and Washington state is Canadians coming south to shop, according to researchers’ estimates. Those crossings have now come to a halt. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

“Dramatic” economic hit

At the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, typically one of the nation’s busiest, auto traffic was nearly nonexistent midday Wednesday, with frequent crossers saying lines were shorter than they could recall seeing since a shutting of the border after the 9/11 terror attacks.

On a typical weekday, a large portion of midday border traffic consists of British Columbia residents driving to the U.S. to pick up packages delivered to one of roughly 20 mail depot businesses in Blaine, local officials said.

With the high likelihood that those trips will be deemed “nonessential,” the city economy is poised to take a “dramatic” hit in tax revenue, said Michael Jones, the Blaine city manager.

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Taxes from those businesses and gas stations, restaurants and motels are a significant portion of Blaine’s annual budget, he said.

“We will probably have to look at cuts down the line,” Jones said.

While no one has an exact number for how much business Canadians bring south of the border, they tend to shop at big-box retailers, according to researchers and Whatcom County business leaders.

“Costco in Bellingham typically ranks in the top five nationally for gas and milk sales, and it’s not because Bellingham drinks more milk than anywhere else in the U.S.,” said Hart Hodges, the co-director of Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

There were so many Canadians shopping in Bellingham in 2014, when the Canadian dollar was strong, that residents began advocating for locals-only hours at Costco.

Americans are currently purchasing so many necessities, disentangling the impact of the border closure on those stores’ bottom line will be difficult, said Guy Occhiogrosso, Bellingham Chamber of Commerce president.

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“All of the large box retailers are experiencing a flood of sales and income,” he said.

The new order is likely to cripple cross-border traffic that already had declined significantly since the start of the coronavirus emergency. Early this week, most stores closed their doors at Seattle Premium Outlets in Marysville amid falling foot traffic. The entire complex will shut down Thursday.

Early 2020 border traffic into Washington state was down 22%, and has dropped by 42% in March to date compared to previous years, according to a report released Wednesday by the Border Policy Research Institute at WWU.

Crossing numbers for personal vehicles at state border stations on Tuesday were 85% below previous years on the same date, the report said.

State border traffic traditionally rises and falls according to the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canadian dollars, gradually climbing when the Canadian dollar goes farther in Washington stores. Volumes fell sharply after 9/11, the only other time in modern history that the change was abrupt as during the coronavirus, institute officials said Wednesday.

Whether that drop stands as a blip or longtime trend might depend on whether restrictions remain in place long enough to change consumer habits, they said.

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While it’s easy to get caught up in doomsday thinking, it’s important to recognize that the unique nature of the virus scare means trade lost to isolation orders can also rebound more quickly than typical currency-based fluctuation, said Laurie Trautman, the institute’s director.

“The U.S. and Canada, and B.C. and Washington, work together really well,” she said, noting that several organizations promote trade relationships. “If anywhere, even in the world, is going to come back from this and learn from it, it’s going to be right here in western B.C. and Western Washington.”

Seattle Times staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Percy Allen and Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.

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