More than 19 months after the U.S. border was shut down to nonessential travelers from Canada and Mexico, fully vaccinated visitors can now cross to enjoy recreation, tourism and shopping. For border communities in Washington, the change couldn’t come soon enough.
The economic impact to these communities and beyond, along with the emotional toll on separated cross-border families, has been a painful reminder of the vital relationship we share with our international neighbors. Better coordination and responsiveness between governments is essential as the pandemic recovery continues.
Residents and officials have long expressed frustration over the drawn out and opaque process of reopening, which saw the Biden administration extend restrictions on a month-by-month basis with no clear indication on what determined policy. Air travel from Canada and Mexico was allowed, with a negative COVID-19 test required for entry, since January.
“We had ways to screen if we were really just concerned about people’s health, we had ways to screen for that a long time ago,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. “If you don’t live with the border every day, then you can’t appreciate the impact of something like these restrictions.”
Border towns such as Blaine and Sumas, as well as the U.S. enclave of Point Roberts, have been devastated by the loss of Canadian visitors. In Whatcom County, home to the third-busiest border crossing point between the U.S. and Canada, more than 10% of taxable retail sales and more than half of fuel tax revenues along the border depend on tourists, officials said. With regular border crossings cut by 90% that has meant a loss of more than $200 million.
For Bellingham, the impact has been felt from the local Costco — where half of the people filling up their gas tanks were Canadian — to the airport, where Canadian passengers filled flights to Las Vegas and California. Boating at marinas in Bellingham and Blaine has also been hurt, said Don Goldberg, director of economic development at the Port of Bellingham and Whatcom County.
Although border community residents are overjoyed that U.S. restrictions have been lifted, there are still obstacles to overcome. While Canada reopened its border to fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents in August, it still requires a negative COVID test taken in the last 72 hours for entry. This applies to returning Canadians as well, which is expected to limit casual travel and curtail economic recovery.
“We’re all hoping that the two governments will come up with one consistent policy on both sides that would be beneficial to both,” Goldberg said.
A coalition of state and local leaders, industry groups, binational organizations and Washington’s congressional delegation has been a strong advocate for reopening. Even as they stop to celebrate this week, that alliance must keep up the pressure in D.C. and Ottawa.