Latitudes and Attitudes: The Impact of COVID-19 on Western Border Cities

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Latitudes and Attitudes is a collaboration between CBC Radio and NPR’s Mountain West News Bureau that explores the impact of the closure of the Canada-U.S. Border on cities that depend on tourists from the neighboring country.


The Canada-US border crossing south of Fernie, BC is quiet these days; there are no buses or vans full of mountain bikes, and vacationing families head to the neighboring country for summer recreation.

Lack of international travel, due to Canada-U.S. Border closing amid COVID-19 pandemic, is pushing business owners who rely on tourism dollars from visitors crossing the border to plan for the worst .

In every other summer, David Clarke, owner of the First & Last Chance Bar and the Duty Free Store on the U.S. side of the border, said a two-way queue was the norm.

But lately Clarke’s store was nearly empty.

“No traffic at all,” he says.

David Clarke says his duty-free sales are non-existent after the Canada-U.S. Border closed in mid-March. (Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau)

Paul Samycia founded a river guiding business and fly shop in Fernie, British Columbia two decades ago. More than two-thirds of its customers are Americans.

With the border closed, he said the season was almost a cancellation.

“At the end of July, we normally have around 220 trips under our belt,” he said. “This year, we’ll be lucky if we break 50.”

This is the story of many businesses in border towns that rely on tourists from overseas to support the economy on both sides of the international border. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted stark similarities and big differences in the attitudes of residents of Canadian and American border cities.

Businesses in Eureka, MT rely on Canadian tourists to keep the economy afloat, and with the border closed, things aren’t going well. The Mountain West News Bureau of American Public Radio has teamed up with CBC to find out more. 3:42

The Canadian and US governments have agreed to end non-essential traffic between countries on March 21. Earlier this month, the agreement has been extended in August. And as COVID-19 cases continue to increase at a staggering rate in some states, it’s unclear when the border could reopen.

“Much of what we’ve been through revolves around the angst of the unknown,” said Gordon Sombrowski, who owns two hotels in Fernie and runs a third in Spokane, Wash.

With Canadians and Americans banned from traveling to each other’s countries for fun, Sombrowski predicts the worst-case scenario – a border closed for up to two years. It would be devastating for Fernie’s tourism economy, he said.

Likewise, Clarke is worried about how her business will fare if the shutdown continues.

“All revenue streams are down,” Clarke said. “Duty free is non-existent and basically what we put in the duty free bank allows us to spend the winter. ”

Some businesses in Fernie, BC are battling the influx of American tourists who spend money in the city every summer. CBC’s Bob Keating explains. 4:08

Despite falling incomes for many businesses, Fernie Mayor Ange Qualizza said local business owners she spoke with don’t want the border to be reopened until the United States gets a handle on it. the pandemic.

The United States currently has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, as well as the highest number of deaths. Washington state, which borders British Columbia, recorded more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 1,400 deaths on Wednesday. Montana, which borders British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, recorded much less – nearly 3,000 cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the state, as well as more than 40 deaths on Wednesday.

“They don’t want to put Canada or Fernie in danger,” Qualizza said.

“They would love to see their business model come back, but not at the expense of security. “

Ange Qualizza, mayor of Fernie, B.C., said local businesses are more concerned with community safety than opening the border to tourists. (Bob Keating / CBC)

South of the border, business owner LaVerna Munro agrees. His gift shop in Eureka, Mont., Saw his income drop by 60%. 100% without Canadians spending money on it, but she believes closing the border was the right thing to do.

“Our numbers are way higher than them, and I can understand where they don’t want us up there,” she said, referring to Canada.

Outbreaks of the new coronavirus have hit much of the United States, but in Canada the virus appears to be under control. Even so, attitudes towards the pandemic vary considerably south of the border. Nate Hegyi of the Mountain West News Bureau of Public Radio has more. 4:10

But there are people, mainly in the United States, who believe the threat of the virus is overdone.

“What I saw was a program that the alarmists put together,” said Matthew Barrett, owner of Montana Shipping Depot.

These alarmists, he said, include everyone from liberal politicians and the media to America’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr Anthony Fauci, he said.

Barrett makes the majority of his money from Canadians who ship packages to his business for a cheaper US price, then cross the border to collect them.

The influx of American tourists visiting Fernie, BC is nonexistent this year as the border between Canada and the United States remains closed. (Bob Keating / CBC)

He estimates his income has gone down 90%. 100 because of the border closure.

COVID-19 continues to impact communities around the world, and although British Columbia has kept the number of cases relatively low, residents continue to follow the advice of public health professionals. Bob Keating of CBC asks residents of Nelson what they think of the rules and regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. 4:04

The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed more than 143,000 deaths nationwide from COVID-19. In Canada, just under 9,000 people have died from the virus so far.

As of Wednesday, British Columbia had 3,362 cases of COVID-19 in the province, of which 285 were active. Residents of the province are no longer discouraged from traveling to British Columbia, and people from neighboring Alberta are starting to return for summer vacation.

But it is not the same.

Jikke Gyorki, managing director of Tourism Fernie, said visits were down 10-20%, roughly the percentage of American tourists who visit in a typical year.

“We’ll see an American visitor spending up to $ 600 a day, easily, per person,” she said. “Whereas a regional traveler will probably spend between $ 150 and $ 200 per day. “

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