Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Point Roberts 'will be lucky to survive' if border closure continues

The port of entry to Point Roberts, a tan building with a flagpole out front.
J. Stephen Conn
Flickr Creative Commons
The port of entry from Canada into Point Roberts, Washington, which depends economically on cross-border travel. Leaders there are asking both countries to relax a border closure in place since mid-March.

The border between the United States and Canada remains closed to all but essential travel. The closure went into effect in mid-March and it has been repeatedly extended as the pandemic grows, particularly in the U.S.

It’s caused a lot of difficulty for the people who live and work along the 5,525-mile border. But perhaps no community in the United States is in the situation of Point Roberts, Washington.

Point Roberts is an exclave, situated on a piece of land that dips into the United States off British Columbia’s Tsawwassen Peninsula. To get to the rest of Whatcom County by land, people in Point Roberts must drive through about 20 miles of Canada.

The economy there is built for cross-border travel, from oversized supermarkets that count on seasonal increases in the population, to businesses that help Canadians receive goods that are much cheaper when they don’t have to ship across an international border.

The fire chief in Point Roberts has sent a letter to President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and state and local officials on both sides of the border. He’s asking the two countries to relax the rules for his community, which he says might not survive if the border closure continues.

KNKX's Ed Ronco spoke with Chief Christopher Carleton. Listen to their conversation above, or read a transcript below. Both have been edited for clarity and brevity. 


Ed Ronco, KNKX: You've written to President Trump, Prime Minister Trudeau, state and provincial local leaders on both sides of the border. Has anyone replied?

Chief Christopher Carleton, Whatcom County Fire District 5: So I've heard from the premier's office in Victoria, British Columbia, and I'm still waiting to hear from anyone from our county or our state level.

KNKX: What's happening there right now that has you concerned, especially economically?

Carleton: All communities are dealing with economic hardships at this time. But I don't think what people understand is our regional isolation, and that means that we don't have any regional draw continuing into our community from the United States, because the only way to get here if you don't have essential business is by boat or by plane.

KNKX: As you drive around town, what are the impacts you're seeing?

Carleton: Well, the biggest thing is lack of residents within my community. And at this time in normal history, we would have close to 4,000 to maybe 5,000 people within Point Roberts boundaries, and those are all the people that influx into our community during the summer. So businesses are extremely intermittent here. They have all decreased their hours and some are staying closed for days at a time and then will open up for the weekend.

KNKX: You said you're not aware of any COVID-19 cases in Point Roberts currently. What makes you so sure?

Carleton: That's correct. We've been testing since April and we have right at 500 people (tested) within my community. And some of those are repeat testings. A lot of my community has really stepped up to find out if they're an asymptomatic carrier, which is the testing that we're currently doing at this time. So within the community, and the records that we are allowed to acquire, we don't have anybody that's positive.

KNKX: The U.S. as a country has had more deaths from COVID-19 than Canada has had cases. On July 25, Canada reported 346 new cases of COVID-19. The U.S. reported nearly 66,000. So it's understandable, isn't it, why the Canadian government in particular might be worried?

Carleton: I think they're worried because they're grouping us in with the lower 48. I think we need to be treated more in the perspective of a transborder community with Tsawwassen, lower mainland British Columbia, than actually part of the United States at this point.

KNKX: On the other hand, are you concerned about new people coming into the community? I mean, how would you keep your year-round residents safe?

Carleton: That's a very good question, and that's a double-edged sword, right? We have had people transiting into Point Roberts from the lower 48. Getting away from Oregon, getting away from California. So there is that worry.

Anybody that would come into our community, we would hope would come by the fire station, get tested, and that they would fall underneath the same regulations that we have of wearing masks and everything out public.

KNKX: What happens in Point Roberts if the border closure lasts longer because there's no vaccine yet, or because the pandemic isn't subsiding the way people want it to?

Carleton: My community will be lucky to survive if we don't have some type of easing or independent viewing of Point Roberts during this pandemic to allow a little bit of commerce from the outside to come in, and support the businesses that are normally here. If we continue into the last part of 2020 into 2021, most of the businesses that we have in normal times will have to close their doors.

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