More than 19 months after the U.S. border closed to non-essential travelers from Canada and Mexico, fully vaccinated visitors can now cross to enjoy recreation, sightseeing and shopping. For Washington’s border communities, change couldn’t come soon enough.
The economic impact on these communities and beyond, as well as the emotional burden 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 with the lengthy and opaque reopening process, which has seen the Biden administration extend restrictions month-to-month without any clear indication of determined policy. Air travel from Canada and Mexico was permitted, with a negative COVID-19 test required for entry, since January.
“We had ways to screen if we were really concerned about people’s health, we had ways to screen for this 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 like Blaine and Sumas, as well as the American enclave of Point Roberts, have been devastated by the loss of Canadian visitors. In Whatcom County, home to the third border crossing point between the United States 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 reduced by 90%, that translated into a loss of over $ 200 million.
For Bellingham, the impact was felt from the local Costco – where half of the people filling their gas tanks were Canadians – to the airport, where Canadian passengers filled flights to Las Vegas and California. Boating at Bellingham and Blaine marinas has also been affected, said Don Goldberg, director of economic development for Bellingham Harbor and Whatcom County.
While residents of border communities are delighted that U.S. restrictions have been lifted, there are still hurdles to overcome. While Canada reopened its border to U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated permanent residents in August, it still requires a negative COVID test taken within the past 72 hours to enter. This also applies to returning Canadians, which should limit occasional travel and slow economic recovery.
“We all hope that the two governments will come up with a coherent policy on both sides that would be beneficial to both,” Goldberg said.
A coalition of state and local leaders, industry groups, binational organizations and the Washington Congressional delegation has been a strong supporter of the reopening. Even if they stop to celebrate this week, this alliance must keep the pressure on DC and Ottawa.