Joel and Jaclynn Villanueva’s Primo’s Mexican Grill, across the street from the pier in White Rock, was hit on two fronts by the March 21 closure of the Canada-U.S. border.
Immediately, Jaclynn was cut off from her regular shopping trips to the U.S for essentials such as specialty tortillas and spices, which are more expensive or just unavailable in Canada, for their from-scratch recipes.
Now, as Primo’s struggles to recover from the shutdown that closed their restaurant from mid-March to June 5, they are cut off from American visitors who used to make up about 20 to 30 per cent of their business during the all-important summer months, said Jaclynn.
“We had quite a few American regulars that would come across, plus just travellers,” she added.
“In a nutshell, the closure for us, especially being a Mexican restaurant, has impacted us,” added Joel, a third-generation owner of the business his grandfather started in Vancouver at 12th and Granville in 1959.
Not that either of them is complaining.
Jaclynn said they understand the closure to non-essential travel that started March 21, and has separated communities of longtime neighbours, “is for the greater good,” considering the dynamics of a global pandemic.
There is, however, a story of two border-town experiences.
The U.S. enclave of Point Roberts, for instance, has withered to a near “ghost town” without the two-way traffic that swells its summer population to 5,000 from a year-round count that normally numbers close to 1,300, said the Chamber of Commerce director, Brian Calder.
Calder estimates about 900 residents are holding out in Point Roberts. The families of 30 school-age children have left for the duration given their is no clear picture of how long the closure will last and no sign of an exemption that would acknowledge the unique situation as an isolated peninsula cut off from the rest of Washington state except by boat or by road through Canada.
“You drive around, you’re hard pressed to pass another car here,” Calder said.
Communities on the U.S. side that once thrived off of the cross-border-shopping habits of Canadians, Blaine in particular, are suffering a serious reversal of fortunes.
Mail-box centres in particular, where many Canadian customers received shipments from online shopping, had become ” a huge part of our fabric (and) who we were employing,” said Michael Ebert, president of Blaine’s Chamber of Commerce.
“All of a sudden that went from like, 60 to zero. And it’s really hard, I mean how do you replace that?”
“Blaine isn’t a huge town, it’s kind of built in a way where it relied on that traffic coming through,” Ebert said.
About one third of businesses across Whatcom County, which includes Blaine, Lynden, Sumas and the larger Bellingham, reported losing business because of the border closure, according to a study by the Border Policy Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
“It’s a little hard to disentangle impacts from the pandemic itself versus the border impacts, but we definitely know that places like Sumas and Blaine, Lynden and Point Roberts have depended very heavily on very specific Canadian markets,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Institute and professor at WWU.
Trautman has heard reports from the City of Blaine that its sales tax receipts are down 24 per cent so far in 2020, attributable primarily to a lack of Canadian visitors.
Her institute has estimated that Canadians typically account for 12 per cent of the county’s retail sales, and “that’s pretty much non-existent” now.
Essential travel, for trade, work, education or medical appointments, is still allowed and as of the end of July, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol counted 2.3 million crossings into the U.S. at Blaine, Point Roberts, Lynden and Sumas.
But that is way down compared with all of 2019, when 12.8 million people crossed at those posts.
Mike Hills, owner of the Skye Hill Station, sees the difference daily.
“I’m the first gas station (after) the Canadian border, and it’s a Chevron, and we were pumping like 5,000 gallons a day before COVID, and since COVID we haven’t pumped 400 gallons a day,” Hill said.
A lifelong Blaine resident, Hill said the only other comparison in his 59 years, was 9/11 when the U.S. closed the border over security fears, but that was just for a day.
On the optimistic side, Hill said the only two drive-through spots in Blaine, a new Starbucks that leases part of his complex and a Mexican restaurant, are busier than before COVID.
Ebert said local morale that was a little “beaten down” at the start of the pandemic, has started to rise a little bit with the arrival of assistance programs including the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
What worries Ebert, however, is how the resiliency he sees now will hold up if the closure rolls into winter, as most people expect.
“You can survive the first six months, maybe, but that’s when the rubber hits the road, is when the weather turns,” Ebert said.
Canada and U.S. federal officials have extended the border restrictions to Oct. 21, but on either side, no one expects any change before the end of the year as the American case counts continue to rise and have ticked up in Canada.
On the Canadian side, while impacts from the collapse of tourism have been staggering, people are comfortable with keeping the non-essential restrictions in place until U.S. states get COVID-19 under better control.
Even just across from Blaine, where businesses usually count on Americans for 20 to 30 per cent of their business, worries about the virus beat out commerce.
The closure “is definitely affecting our business, especially in the restaurant and retail sector,” said Ritu Khanna, executive director of the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce. “The business owners I’ve spoken to aren’t pushing for the borders to be open, because there’s just too much of a perceived risk.”