There’s a banner across H Street in downtown Blaine, Wash., welcoming Canadian neighbours back now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted to allow non-essential travel across the land border into the U.S.
But, despite an early morning surge of southbound traffic at the border Monday, an anticipated wave of visitors had not materialized by mid-morning, and traffic had slowed to a trickle.
Mike Hill, owner of Hill’s Chevron Food Mart and Gift Shoppe on Peace Portal Drive – and a newly elected member of Blaine city council – told Peace Arch News Monday morning he had seen no appreciable rush of Canadian visitors.
In statement before the ban on non-essential visits was lifted, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had said it expected long lines at crossings from the east coast to the west coast “in the initial days following pent-up demand” – but most crossings were clear by 9 a.m. in each time zone.
“I went up to the border earlier on,” Hill said.
“We’ve been watching the border cameras (online) all night. It looked like there was a line-up around 5 this morning, but once they flushed that through, that was it. (The wave of visitors) isn’t coming until they get rid of the (COVID-19 test) stipulation.”
While the U.S. is not requiring foreign nationals crossing the border to show proof of a negative COVID test, Canada insists on a negative test taken within the previous 72 hours before it will re-admit returning Canadians.
Many believe that, although Canada will now allow the test to have been done in Canada for those returning within the 72-hour limit, the restriction is a huge disincentive for the kind of casual cross-border visits that used to typify traffic between Blaine and White Rock-South Surrey.
Hill, whose family has owned the business for 30 years, said he and other Blaine merchants are hopeful that this kind of trade can come back “even stronger than before.”
“It’s pretty early, yet,” he said, noting that he believes that most of those who came through early on Monday were Canadians with homes or winter residences down south, for whom meeting the costs of tests is worthwhile for an extended visit.
“We know that they were the ones who have just been waiting to go through,” he said. “If we can smooth things out, then things will begin to go back the way they were before; or even better.”
Kyle Dhanani, a Semiahmoo Peninsula resident who works in Bellingham and crosses the border daily, told PAN on Monday that he didn’t have any wait at all when he crossed into the U.S. at the Pacific Highway truck crossing, though he noted that he avoided the Peace Arch crossing after seeing that wait times were long at the time.
“Hopefully your article doesn’t alert people that there are two crossings in our area,” he joked.
Dhanani predicted that wait times would increase again later in the week, as some B.C. residents may opt to stay over the line for a night or two, extending trips into the weekend in order to make the expense of getting a COVID test worthwhile.
On Monday afternoon, meanwhile, the Surrey Board of Trade and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement calling for the Canadian government to “immediately eliminate requirements for fully vaccinated Canadians to produce a negative COVID-10 (PCR test) when returning from the United States.”
“At a cost of $150 to $300 per PCR test, that can be a pricey proposition, particularly for families,” said Guy Ochiogrosso, CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Only when both sides are aligned, will we see an increase in economic activities.”
– files from Nick Greenizan & The Canadian Press