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Cut off from U.S. by land, Point Roberts figures out how to stay connected

Michael Chu
via Flickr Creative Commons
Point Roberts is part of Whatcom County, but you have to travel through British Columbia to get to it. The border closure has big consequences here.

UPDATE, March 26: Since we spoke with Scott Elliston, we heard some more details from the Canadian government on travel in and out of Point Roberts. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was quoted as saying cross-border travel may continue for people in communities where it's essential to everyday life. And in a conversation with KNKX, Canada's Consul General in Seattle said his country's border officers have been given some discretion to determine what constitutes essential travel into the country.

The planned closure of the border between Canada and the United States to all but essential traffic has created a lot of unknowns for people in Point Roberts.

The Whatcom County community is orphaned from the rest of the state by virtue of its geography. It’s connected by land only to Canada, at the end of the Tsawwassen Peninsula. (Here's a map, so you can see what we mean.)

“I have prescriptions I need to go pick up in Bellingham. If I can’t get through, I’m stuck,” said Scott Elliston, assistant manager of TSB Shipping Plus.

Elliston says neither the Canadian nor the U.S. government has been clear on what constitutes essential travel, at least not as it applies to a community of 1,200 people with no other link to the rest of the United States.

His job is at stake, too. TSB is used by Canadians who can’t get things from the U.S. shipped easily to Canada. They just have it sent there, and drive down to pick it up. But they’ve stopped doing that, uncertain whether they’ll be able to cross the border and retrieve their parcels.

“We don’t have movie theaters, we don’t have pharmacies, we don’t have malls,” he said. “There’s six gas stations, some parcel services and a grocery store.”

Such a closure feels unprecedented. Elliston moved to Point Roberts from Orange County, California, four years ago. He’s heard from his neighbors that the border has never been this restricted, even following the 9/11 terror attacks.

The community does not have its own local government, relying on Whatcom County for most of that.

“Every day the fire chief comes out with updates he’s hearing from Whatcom County, but we don’t really have a city council,” Elliston said. “We have a group of concerned citizens who meet, and then they take our concerns as a community to Whatcom County.”

Blaine, along Interstate 5, is just a few miles away by water, but the only water crossings are in private boats. There’s an airstrip, too, which could be used to get people over to Bellingham’s airport.

The Bellingham Herald reports a Whatcom County task force is figuring out how to make sure Point Roberts is well supplied during the border closure. Plans include making sure school lunches can be delivered from the Blaine School District, and that health care workers can get across the border to their jobs. A Facebook post from the Point Roberts Fire Department says the department is working to make sure necessary supplies, including medications, can make it to the community.

Still, Elliston says this is an unusual situation and that most of the time, living with the peculiar geography of Point Roberts is absolutely worth it. He says neighbors look out for each other here.

“I can go down to Lighthouse Beach and watch the orcas swim past. If I really need some night life, I trek over the border. I can be in Vancouver in 45 minutes, and at the end of the day I can come back to a quiet community where there’s not even streetlights,” Elliston said. “I have no questions about wanting to be anywhere else.”

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Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.