(CNN) — Each evening, Point Roberts residents Steve Work and Shawna Sylvester head out for a walk. Strolling along the sandy beaches that surround the community, Work says it often feels like the American/Canadian couple has the eight miles of shoreline to themselves.
This is because many of the houses in their neighborhood are empty — the owners are absent because months of coronavirus travel restrictions have made it impossible for them to reside in Point Roberts.
“It’s like an idyllic island;” says Work of Point Roberts, “except it was never set up to be an island.”
Point Roberts is a 5-square-mile outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County, Washington state and the United States by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings.
Those boundaries never used to matter because Point Roberts was integrated into the nearby town of Tsawwassen in Canada says Work, “The border felt transparent. It was easy to come and go.”
But when Covid-19 cases began to soar in the United States while growing more slowly in Canada, the two countries agreed to border restrictions.
A border problem
The closure, beginning March 21 and renewed monthly, resulted in a dramatic drop in traffic between the two countries, although essential workers — such as truck drivers and health-care professionals — were still able to cross.
“This is a beautiful place with a strong community, but we’re isolated from just about everything,” says Work, who like most residents is eager for both governments to come up with a solution that allows residents to enter and exit Point Roberts more easily.
The goal would be to get a special exemption to cross into Canada to stock up on supplies and visit family or to return back through the Peace Arch border crossing into Washington State.
Point Roberts is just one of many close-knit, cross-border communities along the US-Canadian border that have been cut off since Covid-19 travel restrictions were implemented.
But unlike more typical border towns — which may be separated from their Canadian counterpart but are still attached to their larger county and state — Point Roberts is what geographers call a pene-enclave; a piece of land that can be reached only by traveling through a foreign territory. Other pene-enclaves along the border include Hyder, Alaska; the Northwest Angle in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; and Campobello Island, New Brunswick.)
In normal times, this hasn’t really mattered. Point Roberts developed a unique hybrid identity where residents were equally likely to be Canadian as American. In the enclave, traffic speed signs were in US miles per hour but gas prices were Canadian dollars per liter.
Daily life tended to move fluidly across the border — with residents often working, shopping, recreating, going to school or getting health care on the Canadian side.
Covid-19 stopped all this.
Pene-enclaves such as Point Roberts and Hyder often grew out of nation building negotiations. In the case of Point Roberts, the isthmus was once a favored summer camp for Indigenous people from the Cowichan, Lummi, Saanich and Semiahmoo nations.
When the US-Canada border was set at the 49th parallel in 1846, it intersected the Tsawwassen Peninsula, leaving a blob of the United States dangling on the bottom.
Rather than being a mapping oversight, this line was actually strategic. It granted the United States a military foothold as well as valuable fishing and crabbing rights. For decades, the enclave was a no-man’s land occupied by “smugglers and otherwise lawless men” (according to one report).
This changed when the US government cleared the population in 1892, making way for settlers in 1908.
Point Roberts never became what you’d call bustling. The tranquil little community with its beaches and forested landscape attracted summer vacationers and 1,191 permanent residents (swelling to about 4,500 in the summer) who enjoy its laid-back vibe.
Since the closure of the border, the population is estimated to have dropped to between 800 and 900 people, and businesses shortened their hours or shuttered — dropping by about 80%.
Similarly, the community of Hyder has seen a dip in population and economic activity. The easternmost town in Alaska, which is cut off from the rest of the state by a vast wilderness and mountains, relies on its Canadian counterpart of Stewart, British Columbia, for its fuel, groceries and other necessities of life.
Found at the very end of BC Highway 37A, Hyder is the only Alaskan town drivers can reach without traveling the Alaska Highway. The community usually sees as many as 100,000 tourists in a year thanks to events such as the annual Hyder Seek gathering of motorcyclists.
“Pre-Covid-19, the border barely seemed to matter, many of us crossed back and forth two or three times daily and moved between residences fluidly depending on the season,” says Jennifer Bunn, resident of Hyder and Co-Chair of the Hyder AK & Stewart BC Covid-19 Action Committee.
Now the 63 residents of Hyder can’t travel to Stewart and the 425 Stewartites aren’t permitted to visit Hyder. Currently, one member of each Hyder household is identified as the “designated shopper” and is allowed a single trip each week for fuel and groceries. No cross-border socializing, recreation or school attendance is permitted.
Bunn says she hopes that officials recognize the interdependence of the two communities and allow them to create a bubble before winter hits, “Due to border restrictions, Hyder residents were unable to collect firewood in Stewart, and I’m unsure how many will heat their homes this winter. We aren’t prepared for winter, emotionally or physically.”
In Point Roberts, fire chief Christopher Carleton also hopes lawmakers on both sides of the border will realize how unique the pene-enclaves are. While the ban on nonessential travel across the land border makes sense to him, he points out his community is experiencing unique hardships such as families choosing to leave so their kids could go to school.
Covid-19 cases have risen more slowly in Canada where there have been 186,881 confirmed cases and 9,654 deaths compared with 7,883,392 and 216,323 deaths in the United States as of 3:30 p.m. ET Wednesday.
This combined with US visitors abusing the Alaska Loophole — a provision that allows Americans to drive through Canada to get to and from Alaska, by taking the shortest route possible, stopping only for essentials and avoiding tourist attractions — has made Canadian officials reluctant to make any changes to already complex border restrictions.
But Bunn and Carleton point out that neither community has had a single case of Covid-19 and that their very unusual circumstances should make them eligible for common-sense solutions.
The Canada-US border remains closed to all but essential travel until at least October 21.
However, newly announced rules around family reunification, entry for compassionate reasons and entry for international students to Canada as well as enhanced compliance and enforcement efforts indicate the border will remain closed indefinitely.