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One hundred years after Peace Arch was dedicated, U.S.-Canadian border remains closed, and experts worry about the implications

The inside of the Peace Arch, seen June 19, in Blaine, Wash., reads “May these gates never be closed,” commemorating the Treaty of Ghent between the U.S. and Canada. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020.  (Laurel Demkovich/Spokesman-Review)
The inside of the Peace Arch, seen June 19, in Blaine, Wash., reads “May these gates never be closed,” commemorating the Treaty of Ghent between the U.S. and Canada. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020. (Laurel Demkovich/Spokesman-Review)

One hundred years ago, construction on the Peace Arch in Blaine was completed.

On. Sept. 6, 1921, the 67-foot white arch stood tall at the border between the United States and Canada, commemorating the end of the War of 1812 when the two countries agreed on an unguarded border.

An inscription on the inside of the arch reads:

“MAY THESE GATES NEVER BE CLOSED.”

Now, almost 18 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge in North America, travel between the two countries remains restricted, and Peace Arch Park has become the meeting spot for many families separated by its closure.

Canada announced last month it was reopening the border to fully vaccinated Americans, although the process to visit is still a long one. The Biden administration, however, announced it was keeping the border closed through at least Sept. 21, citing the risk of the highly contagious delta variant.

As the closure drags on, experts and local communities wonder if the relationship between the two countries will ever be the same.

Reasoning for extending border closure variesWhen the border closed almost 18 months ago, the Black Ball Ferry spent a month shuttling Canadian snowbirds from Port Angeles back to Victoria, British Columbia.

On March 29, 2020, the ferry set out on its last sailing and hasn’t operated since.

“We shut down completely,” Ryan Malane, vice president and co-owner of the ferry line, said. “We expected this to be a fairly short duration.”

But since first announcing they were restricting all nonessential travel in March 2020, the closure has been extended every month with current restrictions set to expire Sept. 21.

The border has never been closed like this, said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. Even after Sept. 11, the border never closed, although the process to cross became slightly more cumbersome.

Then, Canada announced in July it was reopening to fully vaccinated travelers beginning Aug. 9. Those hoping to cross must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arriving, must upload their proof of vaccination into the country’s ArriveCAN app and prepare for randomized testing at the border.

The U.S. border, however, still remains closed to nonessential travel, meaning Canadians cannot come into the U.S., but Americans can go into Canada.

The most concerning part of the closure is the fact that the U.S. and Canada are now making policies separate from one another, Trautman said. In the past, the two countries have always moved forward and made large changes together, she said.

“It was a misstep,” said Matt Morrison, CEO of the public-private nonprofit Pacific Northwest Economic Region, which represents the Northwest states and provinces. ”We should’ve been doing things in sync.”

Despite Canada loosening some restrictions, the Black Ball ferry has yet to get back to fully operational. Malane said he does not think they’ll be able to until the border is completely open with no restrictions.

The test can sometimes be more work than it’s worth, Malane said. The specific PCR or molecular COVID-19 test required by Canada can be difficult to find and expensive. It may not even be ready within the required 72-hour time period.

Trautman said there are likely a few reasons why the border has remained closed for this long. Some are political and others are logistical.

When the U.S. decided to extend the border closure without Canada, the Department of Homeland Security cited the highly contagious delta variant, the increasing case rates across the country and low vaccination rates.

As of Thursday, vaccination rates in the United States remained lower than Canada’s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61.5% of Americans 12 and up had been fully vaccinated, and just over 72% had received at least one dose. In Canada, almost 75% of those 12 and up were fully vaccinated, and almost 83% of those 12 and up had received at least one dose.

But that’s not what the country was facing in early June when many people thought both countries were preparing to reopen the border.

“It’s much more complicated than that,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of a plan from the federal government. No one has decided yet if the United States will require proof of vaccination to enter the country. If that is something that will eventually be required, the United States would need to set up the tools necessary to do so, such as an app similar to the ArriveCAN app that Canada has been using.

The app allows users to upload vaccination records and test results and check mandatory travel information. It’s how the country can quickly check health records at the border.

Part of Morrison’s work, even before the pandemic, was calling on the government to find a way to verify a person’s immunization records. He called it “inexcusable” that the U.S. hasn’t made progress to put the required systems in place, especially a year and a half into the pandemic.

Morrison and others recommended using Nexus, a program used by the two countries’ to quickly verify pre-screened individuals who cross the border often. It’s “hugely frustrating” that they have yet to do that, Morrison said.

“We have to develop a plan,” Trautman said, although she admitted there likely is a lot of work being done within the U.S. government that the public doesn’t know about. Opening the border, however, may not be a priority for an administration that is still relatively new and has numerous other issues to handle, she added.

Part of the reason for keeping it closed could also involve the southern border. In the past, border policy affects all land ports of entry the same, meaning if the country reopens the northern border fully, it would have to reopen the southern border.

It’s possible that in this case the U.S. deals with the northern and southern borders separately, but “it would be a large departure from the way things are done,” Trautman said.

Lastly, Trautman said the delay could be the use of the COVID-19 task force that the White House has created. All COVID-19 decisions, including those involving the border, must be agreed upon by the task force, which includes a number of different national agencies.

“It’s a pretty complicated mix,” resulting in “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Trautman said.

Locals, experts worry for future implications of keeping border closedMost of the immediate impacts of the border closure have been felt in tourism and retail sectors, families and property owners, according to a Border Policy Institute Border Barometer.

Despite the border closure, trucks have still been able to move back and forth, meaning trade between the two countries has largely continued.

Still, in the Cascadia border region, trade between the two countries decreased by 16%, according to the Border Barometer.

Long term, a lack of face-to-face interaction could weaken business partnerships and relationships between the two countries, the Border Barometer found. That could affect trade and business negotiations in the future.

“(The closure) is revealing the importance of the relationship,” Morrison said.

The largest effects have been in the small border communities and businesses that rely on traffic from both countries to survive.

Much of the Black Ball ferry’s surrounding communities depend on it for their economy. It’s the only ferry line between Port Angeles and Victoria.

They provide local jobs to the community, and it attracts tourists from the country passing through Clallam County to Canada. Their passengers spend roughly $65 million a year in the county, Malane said.

Malane said he thinks the Black Ball ferry line will be able to survive the closure, but only thanks to federal and state loans and grants.

“We’ve had a rainy day fund, but no one expects it to rain for a year and half,” he said.

If Canada and the U.S. have different requirements for entering their country, it could lead to confusion, long wait times and ultimately, fewer people crossing the border, Trautman said.

“It’s going to be very different,” Trautman said. “There’s always going to be a little bit of uncertainty.”

Malane, whose wife is Canadian, said Port Angeles and Victoria have been connected for so long. Port Angeles residents listen to Canadian radio stations and watch Canadian television. He said he doesn’t know how the two countries will recover and what future travel might look like.

“The things you take for granted, assuming you’re going to be able to go back and forth,” Malane said.

The two countries have had such an integrated relationship for so long, Morrison said, adding he thinks the two countries will eventually get back to that.

“What I and others are concerned about is making sure this does not happen again,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the current problem, but another could come up, Morrison said, and the two countries have to have systems in place to prepare for that.

“Now that it’s been done,” Trautman said, “it can happen again.”

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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