This June rang in the first summer without restrictions on the U.S./Canada border with the lifting of mandatory proof of Covid-19 vaccination for those entering the U.S. Years of travel restrictions left a mark on some of the businesses closest to the border. Without Covid-era requirements in place, no two business recoveries have looked the same.
The Peace Arch crossing is the busiest in Washington state, seeing over 120 percent more U.S. entries than Point Roberts, which has the second-highest crossing volume, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In July, the Peace Arch border crossing had 311,087 personal vehicles traveling into the U.S., about 73,000 fewer than the same month in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In Point Roberts, July 2023 crossing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows a 25.7 percent decrease from July 2019.
Crossing data shows commercial trucks have stayed close to pre-pandemic volumes. So far in 2023, there is a monthly average of 30,065 commercial trucks compared to an average of 30,800 in 2019.
Canada lifted its final U.S. border travel restrictions last October when it stopped requiring proof of vaccination upon entry. As a result, the number of travelers entering the U.S. rose during a season when numbers traditionally begin to wind down from the summer, said Laurie Trautman, director of Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.
What looked like an initial return to pre-pandemic travel patterns did not remain.
Despite restrictions ending, Trautman said she isn’t too surprised at the slow return of border crossings.
“People probably haven’t fully resumed those pre-pandemic behaviors, and maybe they won’t, we don’t know,” Trautman said.
For some Blaine and Birch Bay businesses, the effects of the pandemic border restrictions are no longer impactful, even if crossing numbers are not where they once were.
Jordan Comstock, manager of 24/7 Parcel, said the business braced itself for anything when Canada eased its restrictions last year. With about 99 percent of business coming from in-person Canadian clientele, he said border crossings are critical for operation.
“There was a big wave initially and then things slowed down,” Comstock said. “We weren’t really sure if people were going to be comfortable crossing again.”
About the same time late last year that the border restrictions loosened, Blaine mailbox stores were in a period of change, according to previous reporting from The Northern Light. Several storefronts closed their operations while others shifted ownership and decreased staffing and hours. The closure of 5dpackages in October 2022 resulted in hundreds – if not thousands – of new clients, Comstock said.
The result has been a return to pre-pandemic levels of business, he said.
Recent gas tax revenues for the city of Blaine show one area that has not recovered and maybe never will, said city finance director Daniel Heverling.
As of September 6, the city’s gas tax revenue has collected about $48,400. In 2019, the gas tax brought in nearly $170,800.
“Sales tax has recovered. Tourism has recovered,” Heverling said. “It’s just the gas tax.”
He proposed two possible reasons for the lack of recovery to the gas tax revenue, which funds road maintenance.
Canadians are driving more hybrid and electric cars than ever before, and those who do need to fill up their tanks are likely bypassing Blaine and stopping at the Lummi Bay Market where gas costs less, Heverling said.
Some businesses have seen a wave of domestic tourism help offset the loss of annual visitors from north of the border, Trautman said.
Blaine’s 2022 lodging tax reached the second highest on record. Previous reporting from The Northern Light attributed some of the high revenue to the domestic travel Semiahmoo Resort received.
Birch Bay Bikes owner John Roy said despite offering rentals and repairs to locals and tourists alike, it has been the Birch Bay community that has stepped up and kept him busy since opening in March 2023.
“It has really been the local community that has made it work,” Roy said.
John Quimod, co-owner of the Peace Arch City Café in downtown Blaine, echoed that local support in an email explaining that annual revenue has improved year over year despite the border restrictions.
In 2022, Blaine was the third busiest Canadian border crossing in the nation and 15th out of all U.S. entry points, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
“I think that will continue to have a slow recovery toward pre-pandemic volumes,” Trautman said. “Given population growth, both in the Lower Mainland and in Whatcom County, it’s not going to take long before our volumes increase beyond what they were.”
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