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Isolated from the rest of Washington, Point Roberts residents worry for future of ‘Little America’ as border restrictions are extended

UPDATED: Mon., June 21, 2021

POINT ROBERTS – The electrician wasn’t coming.

Gradyn Comfort, 62, stood at the bow of the Salish Sea Express – a small ferry normally used for whale watching but deployed as a twice-a-week ferry to Point Roberts. After a two-hour ride from Bellingham on Thursday, Comfort got a phone call: The electrical work on his home would have to wait two more weeks.

Comfort and his family hadn’t been back to the small town in over a year and a half. Point Roberts, which is bordered by water on three sides and the Canadian border on the other, has been isolated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Full-time residents can’t leave unless it’s deemed “essential.” For many, the temporary free ferry from Bellingham is their only option to get out. Part-time residents, mostly Canadians or dual citizens who flock to the beach town in the summer, haven’t been able to visit their homes.

Comfort’s home, like many others, has been left unattended for 15 months. He was arriving in Point Roberts to a home without hot water, electricity or a car battery.

There are few people already in town who can complete electrical work or plumbing.

As the boat pulled into the marina, Comfort and the almost 20 others on the ferry looked out at the small marina.

During a normal summer, the marina would be packed with boats from Canada and the United States. On this day, almost 600 of the 800 stalls were open.

A small crowd waited at the shore, preparing to take the ferry back to Bellingham for essential errands.

Comfort hung up the phone and sighed.

“I don’t know how I’m going to find anyone else,” he said.

‘A ghost town’

A blue and yellow sign sits right after the U.S. border crossing in Point Roberts:

WELCOME TO LITTLE AMERICA, POINT ROBERTS U.S.A.

Point Roberts, all 2-miles-by-3-miles of it, is known for its beaches, its popularity as a summer vacation destination and its proximity to Canada.

The Whatcom County town sits in American territory at the end of a mostly Canadian peninsula, the result of the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which set the northern border of the United States at the 49th parallel.

The only way to get into town from the U.S. is to cross two international borders or take a private plane or boat.

The full-time population is somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people, but in the summer that number usually swells to about 5,000, with many Canadians or dual citizens enjoying their vacation homes for the season.

“It’s not quite America, and it’s not quite Canada,” said Brian Calder, president of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce.

The gas pumps are in liters, not gallons. Many houses fly both Canadian and U.S. flags.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in March 2020 and the Canada-U.S. border closed, the town’s unique relationship with Canada forced many businesses to close forever and led many of its residents to move away.

Residents who tried to leave Point Roberts to visit Bellingham or another Washington town for essential services often struggled crossing.

Some say they were denied entrance to pick up goods they couldn’t get in town or to go to doctor’s appointments, even if they had a note from their physician.

Others say they were able to cross and come back but with strict warnings not to stop in Canada.

Those with Canadian citizenship could return to their country but were required to quarantine for 14 days and get multiple negative tests. For many, attempting to cross wasn’t worth it.

The border closure left Point Roberts with isolated residents, empty homes and a failing economy.

Calder estimates the town lost about 90% of its economy, forcing most businesses and restaurants to close permanently.

Those who can have moved out of the town. Families with children were forced to leave, as many children growing up in Point Roberts go to school in Canada.

“It’s a ghost town,” Calder said, pointing to the empty roads and tall grass that grows on almost all the lawns in town.

Some in town are trying everything to keep the place from falling apart. There’s the one-man Uber who gives rides around town for $10. There are the numerous residents who have taken to house sitting for their neighbors. There are the women who started mowing lawns for neighbors and take care of 16 yards along with making masks for community members and grooming their dogs.

With news Friday that the border would stay mostly closed until July 21, residents wondered what comes next for “little America.”

Economy is ‘completely devastated’

Beth Calder paces the rows of packages in her parcel shop, Point to Point Parcel.

Every package has a bright orange sticker with a date.

Some are within the past week, but others date back to 2019 as owners hoped to pick them up when they arrived back for the 2020 summer season.

Clothes, makeup, bikes, posters all line the shelves, waiting for someone to grab them.

Almost all are Canadians who are often able to avoid shipping costs and taxes when ordering from the U.S. by shipping them to Point Roberts.

Calder’s shop, one of seven in Point Roberts, is the first after crossing the U.S. border. With the border closure, business has gone down, but packages keep piling up. Some people have upward of 20 packages being stored in Calder’s shop, waiting to be picked up.

Beth Calder, who is 49 and Brian Calder’s niece, has given package owners the option of paying to store them in her shop or ship them back to Canada.

Calder’s shop is still open , but many other businesses in Point Roberts haven’t been so lucky.

“It’s a complete devastation of business and our livelihood,” fire chief Christopher Carleton said.

Since last March, at least 14 businesses closed permanently, Calder estimates. The town has a fully stocked grocery store – something many say is a miracle – a handful of restaurants open every few days, a hardware store and five gas stations.

But there are still many things, such as car repairs, medications and large appliances, that require access to neighboring towns.

Point Roberts residents and businesses rely on communities in Canada, Brian Calder said. During the closure, many other border crossing towns have had the benefit of being close to other large American cities. The other Western Washington crossings in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas aren’t far from Bellingham, for example.

Point Roberts, on the other hand, only has the metro Vancouver area, which remains unreachable. Because of that, Point Roberts has been disproportionately affected by the closure, Carleton said.

“We need an external influx of people to help our community to prosper,” Carleton said.

But what worries Beth Calder the most is what happens when the border reopens. She’s had to lay off almost all her staff, and most of them have since moved out of Point Roberts.

When the border opens, Beth Calder said she expects an influx of customers coming to pick up their packages. What her hours will look like then are unclear.

“That depends on who can work and where I can find staff,” she said.

At the one grocery store in town, staffing could also be an issue. Manager Dean Priestman, 66, said it’s always hard to find work but when the border closed, the store cut down on hours and staff, and many people have left.

With so many people having moved out of town, Brian Calder said he doesn’t know how it will recover economically. Although some property is selling, the people who are moving often are retired.

It’s nothing compared to the families that would move to town and attract 30 to 50 relatives to visit them over the summer, he said.

If Point Roberts goes another summer with a border closure, Carleton said the town would be “forever changed.” Opening the border means “everything,” he added.

Beth Calder’s shop recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Calder, who’s lived in Point Roberts her whole life, built the shop from the ground up and at its height, it received 300 to 400 packages a day.

Now, she said, it feels like they’re back to square one.

‘Deafening silence’ on reopening plans

When the pandemic hit, Carleton set up weekly COVID-19 testing sites and kept track of any cases.

To date, only two families and one individual have contracted the virus, he said, and the spread was always contained.

Part of that could be attributed to the isolation the community faces, he said.

“But everyone also wanted to help everyone else,” he said, as many followed social distancing, mask and stay-home requirements.

When vaccinations became available, Carleton also led the town’s effort. As of Thursday, he said 749 people out of the 900 have been vaccinated.

As many people in town are vaccinated, Carleton turned his attention to helping Canadians receive their second dose.

In British Columbia, about 67% of residents have received one dose, but only about 16% have received both, according to Canada’s COVID-19 tracker.

Carleton wanted to set up an international clinic in Point Roberts to allow Canadians to get a second dose.

Similar local ideas from Carleton, Calder and even state and national politicians urge a partial reopening that focuses on Point Roberts.

Earlier this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, urging them to prioritize a reopening for Point Roberts.

“If a full border opening is not considered feasible, I would like to recommend that we prioritize the development of specific policies to partially open crossings,” Inslee’s letter read. Point Roberts was a specific priority.

In February , the Western Washington Congressional delegation sent a letter to President Biden, urging a reopening of the border, specifically pushing for further flexibility for Point Roberts residents.

But none of the ideas has come to fruition.

“Their silence is deafening,” Carleton said.

‘Feels like I’m home again’

Comfort, originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, but living in Houston, has been coming up to his house every summer for nine years.

As he stood at the ferry bow, he saw Point Roberts come into view.

“It feels like I’m home again,” he said.

The Baker siblings – John, Jackie and Janie – felt the same, having spent every summer at their family house. The home in town has been in their family since 1908, when their great-grandpa used to have 100 acres.

They used to spend summers sitting on the beach, fishing with their grandpa, catching crabs on the shore.

Thursday was the first time in a year and a half that the three siblings, in their 60s, got to go back as a family. On the ferry ride back to Bellingham on Thursday evening, they talked about their day spent on the beach and meeting with Canadian friends at the border.

They weren’t sure when they’d be able to go back, probably not until the border reopened, Janie said.

She looked back at the marina as the boat departed and smiled.

“Hopefully, soon.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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