BLAINE, Wash. — Over the past couple of years, Mike Hill poured more than $3.5 million into renovating his Chevron gas station and opening a Starbucks next door. People from British Columbia were crossing the border in droves to buy cheap gas and milk in Blaine. It seemed like a slam-dunk investment.
Len Saunders, a U.S. immigration attorney, remembers talking to Hill about the plan when he was trying to convince Starbucks to open in town.
“They said to him, what if the border closes down?” Saunders recalled. The idea seemed so preposterous to those who lived in Blaine that “everyone laughed.”
Then the coronavirus arrived. Now almost no one comes to Blaine anymore.
When the border between the United States and Canada closed to nonessential travel March 21, the southbound traffic into Blaine — the busiest crossing between Washington and British Columbia — slowed to a trickle. In June, just 12,600 people entered the United States from British Columbia, down from 479,600 during the same month last year.
The economic impact on Blaine, a city of about 5,000, has been crippling. Beaches are now largely empty save for the rocks left by the receding tide. More than a dozen gas stations that once bustled with people heading elsewhere are quiet. The stores that handled mail-order goods for Canadians looking to avoid taxes are piled high with packages that their purchasers cannot pick up.
“The longer this goes, the more devastating it gets,” Michael Ebert, the president of Blaine’s Chamber of Commerce, said as he pointed to the empty storefronts and recently shuttered shops.
The loss is particularly painful to Hill, 59, a lifelong resident who has seen the town go through cycles — he used to help kick the drunks out of his family’s bar, back when Canada banned alcohol on Sundays and a rowdier crowd frequented Blaine’s night spots.
Hill acknowledges that Blaine was always a way station for people heading to perhaps more interesting locales. And sure, there were some empty storefronts on Main Street before the pandemic closed many of them down. But in the past few years, he saw more businesses coming into town.
In large part, the resurgence was fueled by Amazon. Canadians could save money on shipping and taxes by sending their orders to U.S. stores and picking them up later. Today, Blaine has dozens of businesses handling packages from online commerce. Other businesses followed — including the Starbucks next to Hill’s gas station, which opened in 2018, and a hemp clothing store called Rawganique. A grocery store was set to move in soon.
“We all felt like Blaine was finally going to hit its time,” said Mark Seymour, who works with his father, Steve Seymour, at their oyster farm and restaurant. “And then this happened.”
“Gas and packages have been the backbone of our economy,” said Ebert, the Chamber of Commerce president. “You come around the holidays, these package places, by the time they’re open, they’ve got about 20, 25 in line.”
At Mail Boxes International, employees say that it feels like Christmas — only without the joy. Yet-to-be-claimed boxes are piled waist-high in the lobby. The top shelves of the storeroom, normally bare, are stacked tall enough to reach the rafters.
When the border first closed, many Canadians figured it would reopen soon, and they kept ordering online goods, the owner, Brant Baron, said. He put a second storage container in the parking lot to handle the overflow. But then the border reopening got pushed back again, and then again, and Canadians stopped ordering as much. Looking at all the boxes, you would not know that business is down 75%.
“All this is kind of a war zone,” Baron said, gesturing to piles of “forwards” in the lobby — boxes that his staff needed to measure to calculate what it would cost to ship them to Canada.
Most customers, Baron predicted, would find it prohibitively expensive, and he would have to find a place for them in the storage room.
“They tell me they’re bored,” said Saunders, who recognized a couple of the officers by name.
Normally they would be stationed inside the port of entry inspecting applicants for admission, he said. Sometimes they patrolled Peace Arch Park, a strip of land straddling the border where people from both countries can still meet. The park also serves as Saunders’ de facto office since he tries to avoid meeting clients inside his office these days.
Early in the pandemic, he worried that his business would dry up. But many people, especially couples separated by the border closure, have been rushing to get their green cards processed. For a while, some even set up tents in the park, Saunders said, until those got shut down recently, too.
“Why do you think they’re in tents?” he said. “They haven’t seen each other in three months.”
Canada has had about half as many coronavirus deaths per capita as the United States. The number of cases in Canada has been steadily declining since April, while cases in some states are surging.
“I’m not very optimistic at all,” Steve Seymour said during a recent interview at the family business, Drayton Harbor Oysters. “Why would they let us in?”
Drayton is just a couple of minutes down the street from Hill’s Chevron and Starbucks, and business is down, Seymour said. Still, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
The city gave him permission to use a little more outdoor space for extra tables, he said, and on a recent afternoon, customers were ordering grilled garlic butter oysters and fried shrimp tacos to eat at tables they were asked to bus themselves. Seymour farms his oysters nearby, and Drayton had been attracting Washingtonians who liked the farm-to-table approach.
Seymour is thinking about what is next. He can still do takeout when the winter comes. And although he just spent money on new tables and chairs, he is considering buying tents and heaters for outdoor dining in the cold.
“My whole vision now is just to get through this year without being totally in huge debt,” Seymour said.
Blaine had been on an upswing, after all. Business, he was sure, would be back. What were the chances it wouldn’t?