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‘We’re literally just trying to hold on’: Communities worry for businesses as Canadian border closure is extended

UPDATED: Thu., July 16, 2020

The American flag  (Kathy Plonka)
The American flag (Kathy Plonka)

On the day the U.S. closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jake’s Landing in Porthill, Idaho, lost 90% of its business.

The family-owned convenience store, package center and gas station sits a few hundred yards from the Canadian border and serves primarily Canadians who use it as a place for cheap gas, grocery items and package delivery.

As border closures get extended, Lars Jacobson worries about how much longer he can stay open.

“We’re literally just trying to hold on,” owner Jacobson said. “Every month has really been devastating to us.”

Jake’s Landing is one of many border businesses that has been affected by COVID-19-related closures, and many communities wonder what might be left of their businesses when borders reopen.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the U.S., Canada and Mexico agreed Thursday to keep their shared borders closed to nonessential traffic until at least late August. The closures prohibits people from traveling between the countries for tourism or shopping. Essential travel includes commercial traffic and people returning to their home country. The extension will keep the border closed until Aug. 21.

Since the border closed in March, Jacobson said he has had to lay off every employee except one. He and his family now operate the business for free.

“We’re still bleeding red every single month,” he said.

Jacobson, his wife and his adult children bought the convenience store, gas station, shipping center and restaurant just over a year ago. He said his family’s entire financial life is wrapped up in the business.

“If this fails, it’s going to devastate us,” he said.

For communities like Bonners Ferry, tourism has been the biggest industry affected by closures. Dennis Weed, director of Boundary Economic Development Council, said some businesses, such as hotels, have lost about 30 to 40% of their revenue.

Owners are now planning for how to stay afloat if the closures go until the end of the year, he said. Businesses have cut expenses by laying off employees, reducing hours and taking other measures.

Many hospitality businesses have started advertising in Washington and Montana hoping they can gain back what they’ve lost from Canadian travelers.

Oroville, Washington, Mayor Jon Neal said he has seen an increase in statewide travel, bringing more people into his town.

So far, he said the community has not been badly affected by COVID-19, though bringing more people into the community heightens the risk.

The potential for travelers to spread the virus worries Weed, as he has not seen anyone following a 14-day quarantine. But those travelers, he noted, are the one thing keeping many businesses afloat right now.

Nina Grobben, co-owner of lodging business Lazy Daze Retreats in Northport, Washington, said she normally has many people traveling to and from Canada staying with them this time of year.

Grobben said they have not experienced as much of a financial hit as other businesses, but Lazy Daze still saw dozens of cancellations in the first few months of the pandemic.

She said the only thing they can do now is encourage the guests they do have to stay safe when traveling.

“The dollar is not as important as the health of our guests or potential guests,” she said.

The closures have affected both U.S. and Canadian border towns, Weed said, as there is so much international travel between them.

Jacobson said he gets calls daily from Canadians who ask when Jake’s Landing will open again. Many have had packages delivered to the store that they are unable to pick up.

When word got out that Jake’s Landing was hurting, Jacobson said the communities of Porthill and Bonners Ferry came together to help. Many residents tried to patronize his business, but that still only makes up for about 7 to 8% of their normal revenue.

Members of the community also started a GoFundMe, called Save Jake’s Landing, to raise money for Jacobson’s family. So far, it has raised $13,000.

The future is still unknown for Jacobson, depending on how long the border stays closed, but the GoFundMe has allowed them to stay open so far.

“It could be the only thing that saves us,” he said.

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