BELLINGHAM — Sharp-eyed dwellers of Washington’s northwest corner could look skyward in recent weeks and see thousands of snow geese — winter residents of the nearby Skagit Valley — gracefully winging their way north in a migration old as time.
It was a welcome glimpse of seasonal business-as-usual — and a rare one. Most humans with designs on a northerly spring migration get stopped, cold, on roads or waters around Blaine, thanks to a virtual wall between the U.S. and Canada, the result of border restrictions imposed in March to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Shutting the border to all but commercial vehicles and “essential” travelers in a region that once saw 14 million annual crossings has reduced auto traffic at Blaine’s Peace Arch border crossing by 98% — down to barely a couple hundred cars per day.
Offshore — out of sight and mind to most — seaport towns in the San Juan and Gulf islands, where the border abruptly morphed from dotted line on a map to Sharpie-solid, lapping waves sound strangely loud at docks and wharves normally crawling with boisterous early summer boaters.
The bilateral border agreement expires Monday, but at press time an extension seemed likely.
In a pandemic, it’s normal for people to be nervous about foreign visitors, even those coming from nations as historically chummy as the U.S. and Canada. But British Columbia residents might have more reason to be wary: As of late last week, the province, with about 67% the population of Washington, had registered only about 14% as many COVID-19 related deaths as the state.
The politics of reopening are tricky. But in the short term, it might not matter.
“I really, truly believe that even if they opened (the border) tomorrow, the volumes wouldn’t change that much,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. “What we’re going to face after restrictions are lifted is people’s fear of getting sick. That’s not going to go away for a while.”
She expects a baby-steps recovery for an economy dependent on cross-border travel, with the border in the meantime remaining “kind of a dead zone.”
The Salish Sea-side town of Blaine has never been exactly bustling, but now feels uncomfortably silent, says Michael Jones, the city manager. Since the border clampdown, a once-thriving local package-store industry, with dozens of stores in Blaine and Sumas catering to Canadian online shoppers, has tanked.
Broader retail sales in Whatcom County — where Canadian shoppers constituted as much as 75% of pre-virus border crossings, and supplied as much as 12% of local sales tax revenues in 2018 — have dropped off the charts, and are likely to be slow to rebound, Trautman said.
The closure already has exploded consumer confidence and likely altered regional shopping habits, she said.
The double whammy of statewide stay-at-home orders and a walled-off border is felt far beyond retail store counters.
Even if they can reopen soon with new safety measures, tribal casinos near Ferndale and Sumas — economic mainstays for the Lummi and Nooksack peoples — are likely to thirst for previous Canadian customers.
Traffic at Bellingham International Airport is down to a single daily Alaska Air flight — down from 11 pre-virus, and 28 at a peak in 2014 — the result of a 96% year-over-year reduction in passengers and one airline (Allegiant) on full stop until the border loosens.
Alaska state ferry service from Bellingham, and Washington State Ferries service from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., are on check-back-later status. The MV Coho, a private ferry normally plying the Strait of Juan de Fuca daily between Port Angeles and Victoria, B.C., has been involuntarily furloughed.
Clipper Vacations service from Seattle to Victoria aims to resume June 1. But beyond that, it’s tough to get up there from down here, and vice versa.
Those truly determined to dip a toe into cross-border waters by boat are likely to get a friendly boarding by one of the nations’ Coast Guards. Both services have vowed to keep an eye out for skippers who stray over a line that once seemed a formality.
It all feels jarring to the seafaring culture of Washington’s San Juan and B.C.’s Gulf islands, a connected chain that has long felt like a single slice of maritime heaven to Northwest boat cruisers.
Unlike the ruler-straight mainland border, the maritime international line, upon reaching the Salish Sea, jags southward along Haro Strait, which connected, and now separates, the San Juans from Vancouver Island to the west, and B.C.’s Gulf Islands, to the north.
Turning an unmarked maritime border once considered a formality into a barrier is understandable in a pandemic, but feels like a forced divorce to old friends on both sides, said Brent Snow, general manager at Roche Harbor Resort on the north tip of San Juan Island.
In a normal year, the summer cruising season would be underway, and Roche would be hopping. As many as a quarter of stopover or permanent Roche customers typically have a B.C. trip on their itinerary, Snow said.
Roche Harbor has been operating with a skeleton spring crew, about 60% of staff, because of a state shutdown of travel and overnight moorage, Snow said.
“We’re down to people working on essential operations and a few other core employees,” he said. “We’ve put [the others] on furlough, and hope to bring back as many people as possible.”
The framework for the state’s “reopening” offers hope that Roche’s lodging and overnight moorage facilities can resume in the “Phase III” period — now forecast to be in late June, earliest. But virus closures have already crimped critical early-season revenues, as in all other regional hospitality businesses, Snow said.
The clouds are just as dark on the Canadian side, where workers at seaports such as Canoe Cove, a cluster of maritime businesses on Vancouver Island, north of Sidney, B.C., see only quiet waters where a parade of boaters heading toward the Inside Passage normally would be evident.
“It’s been tough,” said Don Prittie, general manager of the facility, which hosts 19 marine businesses. Normally, “We have a lot of customers on both sides of the border, and a lot of international people on their way through.”
Canoe Cove’s roughly 135 employees were given a choice to take time off, or come to work with safety precautions. Most have chosen the latter during the coronavirus shutdown, and no one has tested positive for the COVID-19 disease, Prittie said.
But the summer looks bleak, financially, without a change in travel rules by both countries in the near future, he said.
Throughout the border region, job losses continue to mount. Unemployment claims in 235,000-resident Whatcom County last week soared beyond 30,000 — more than 26% of the pre-virus workforce. County and city governments are negotiating with labor unions for employee furloughs, as potential summer layoffs loom.
Federal relief specific to border communities has been discussed, but has not materialized. Bellingham International received $5 million in federal airport relief money, for short-term payroll and expenses. But other local leaders say they aren’t counting on much help from the cash-strapped federal government.
In Blaine, the “best-case” scenario is that the city of 5,500 will face a $750,000 general-fund shortfall this year, manager Jones said. That’s about 10% of the annual budget. Half might be made up by spending cuts, but prolonged losses likely will translate to layoffs or slashed public services, he said.
The picture looking forward is brightened somewhat by a strong traditional working relationship between business and government leaders in B.C. and Washington, analyst Trautman said. And quick cooperation between border officials on both sides has allowed for orderly movement of goods and people between the enclave of Point Roberts and the Whatcom mainland, easing initial fears.
But even those optimistic about a resumption in U.S./Canadian travel point to a future pockmarked by question marks. When the once free-flowing border between nations reopens to regular folks, they’ll be stepping across an old line into a new place, Trautman predicts.
“It will be a different world.”