Pandemic border closure clobbers Point Roberts


BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON – March 12, 2021 –The future looks bleak for residents of Point Roberts, Washington, because the U.S.-Canada border closure due to COVID-19 has blocked the Canadian visitors the community depends on.

“With 90 percent of its economic activity supplied by Canadians and 75 percent of its real property owned by Canadians, Point Roberts cannot survive much longer without political intervention and real solutions,” said Brian Calder of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce.

Map showing location of Point Roberts, Wash.. — Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce image.

According to the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce, 85% of economic spending in Point Roberts is by Canadians.

“All of our businesses have closed permanently beyond the grocery store, liquor store or gas stations,” said one Point Roberts resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

As a result, the one grocery store in Point Roberts is left almost empty compared to a normal year.

A single grocery cart in front of International Marketplace in Point Roberts, Wash.., in February 2021. — Cameron Martinez photo.

“It’s now a serious joke in my house that every single item in the store costs a minimum of $5,” the resident said. “Not precisely true, but not f—— far. The grocery store has had to raise prices in absence of Canadians, so it’s those of us stuck who are now paying four times our monthly food budget.”

In addition to lost revenue from grocery stores, the restaurants in Point Roberts have suffered as well.

“I’ve lost 95% of my business,” said Tamra Hansen, owner of the Saltwater Café. “I just reopened and it’s to create negative cashflow. So that means I’ll be making money, but really losing money. I don’t have a choice; I need money coming through my bank.”

“All the businesses here are driven by the Canadian economy,” Hansen said. “We all rely on the Canadians for our business.”

Many businesses have resorted to shutting their doors, and this has led to an influx of “for sale” signs around the town.

There are currently two ways to leave Point Roberts.

A “For Sale sign stands in front of Kiniski’s Reef Restaurant in Point Roberts, Wash. in February. — Cameron Martinez photo.

In September the Port of Bellingham began a twice-a-week emergency ferry service. The ferries run on Tuesdays and Fridays, and make two trips per day. The rides are a free service provided by San Juan Cruises.

Residents of Point Roberts are allowed to cross through Canada to get to the United States for emergency reasons only. People working at the borders keep the names of Point Roberts residents along with their license plate numbers for this reason.

The plight of Point Roberts has caught the attention of the community’s representative in Congress, U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-1st District.

The view inside the Point Roberts emergency ferry in February. — Cameron Martinez photo.

“My office received clarity this morning from the Canadian consulate that residents of Point Roberts will be exempt from new requirements that anyone crossing through Canada to mainland U.S. will need to present a negative COVID-19 test,” DelBene said in a post to Facebook.

“I’m pushing for further flexibility for Point Roberts residents so that they can access the mainland U.S. like any other American,” she said.

Yet residents of Point Roberts were required to get negative tests for almost 11 months before the new exemption.

DelBene has also asked President Joe Biden for help.

In a letter to Biden, DelBene wrote,“The ongoing border closure has uniquely and severely impacted Point Roberts, WA, an enclave city with no direct land crossing to the mainland United States.”

DelBene continued,“Constituents in Point Roberts must cross the border into Canada and then cross the border into mainland United States to reach the nearest U.S. city for essential trips like grocery shopping or medical appointments.”

“We appreciate the decision by the Canadian government to exempt the Point Roberts residents from the COVID testing requirement, and request that the Biden administration push for further flexibility in border crossing for our constituents that live in severely isolated geographies,” DelBene said.

Washington state is also attempting to help Point Roberts and other isolated communities during COVID-19.

A small Statue of Liberty replica sports a mask in Point Roberts, Wash. — Cameron Martinez photo.

Yet many residents of Point Roberts feel like they’ve been forgotten about.

“We’ve been abandoned by both countries,” said Hansen, the owner of the community café. “The one I was born in and the one I live in. They say we have essential services, but we don’t. We can’t go into Canada. We can only go to our own country if we have an essential reason.”

To anyone who does not live in Point Roberts, the obvious solution seems like giving Point Roberts to Canada. Not everyone in Point Roberts agrees that it is a good solution.

In addition, residents believe that Point Roberts being in the United States gives it a small town feel because it has not become urban like the Canadian cities bordering the town.

For instance, the fact that Point Roberts is so hard to get to has also made the town one of the safest in the world from COVID-19. As of March 5, 2021 there has only been one case of COVID-19 in the community.

Another solution has been to open the border up for Canadians to come into the town. This would allow Canadians to access their properties in Point Roberts and help out the community’s economy.

“You can imagine when you’re locked down in a small little peninsula where you only have a grocery store and a couple gas stations,” Hansen said. “There’s not a lot to do here.”