State Sen. Mike Cuffe says turning onto U.S. Highway 93 in Eureka has been a whole lot easier this summer. Normally this time of year, Cuffe, who represents all of Lincoln County, would have to find a gap in the long line of traffic going to and from the Canadian border a few miles north at Roosville. But the highway has been much quieter since the border was closed to nonessential travel in March in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“I’ve noticed a lot more 56 plates in downtown Eureka,” Cuffe said, referencing the number that identifies Lincoln County license plates. “Any other summer and it would be filled with plates from British Columbia and Alberta.”
Lincoln County has tried to bolster its struggling economy with tourism in recent years, and visitors from Canada have become key to that effort. In summer, it’s normal to find more Canadians than Americans in the Eureka area, and many own second homes there. But the flow of Canadian visitors — and their dollars — has all but dried up this summer, and it’s beginning to have a major impact on local businesses. At least one downtown shop is closing its doors for good, and others are reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy, locals say.
According to the Canadian government, more than 2.1 million Canadians crossed the country’s border via automobile in June 2019; a year later it’s down to just 136,000 people a month. In British Columbia, border crossings dropped 97.4%, from 479,000 in June 2019 to just 12,600 people in June 2020. The U.S. and Canadian governments closed the border to nonessential travel on March 21 for 30 days, and the closure has been extended multiple times since. The border will remain closed until at least Aug. 21, although many believe it will be much longer than that. Earlier this summer, a poll found that 8 in 10 Canadians believed the border should remain closed until at least the end of 2020. That same poll found that a majority of Canadians — 93% — consider it risky to travel to the U.S. this summer.
“It’s devastating,” said Craig Schelling, owner of the Meadow Creek Golf Course. “It’s killing Eureka.”
Schelling said he’s on pace to do about half the business he would normally do in July and August. The same goes for Randy Burch, owner of Koocanusa Resort and Marina north of Libby. Burch said during any other summer his marina would be busy renting out boats and his restaurant and bar would be packed. Burch said he has room for 112 recreational vehicles and campers on his property. He normally rents about 75 of those to people who are staying in the area the entire season and keeps rest open for people staying just a few nights. This year, most of the seasonal spots are empty and he’s renting only half of the nightly ones.
Burch said his business will likely survive — “I’ll probably end up working for free this year,” he said — but that he’s tightening his belt and recently canceled a major remodel of some of his rental cabins. But he’s worried that other businesses in the area may not survive, and about the ripple effects that would have across the community.
Cuffe echoed those concerns.
“A lot of people here make their money in the summer to survive the winter,” he said.
While the land border is closed to nonessential travel, Canadians can still fly to the U.S., though they are currently required to quarantine for 14 days on their return to Canada.
Cuffe said he would like to see the land border opened for Canadians with property in the area and the quarantine requirement lifted for air travelers. The Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a public-private economic development group that Cuffe leads, has also suggested the U.S. and Canada adopt rules similar to those in Alaska that allow people to avoid quarantine if they have had a negative test within 72 hours of arrival. So far that plan has not gained any traction.
Mike Skranak, manager of the Stein’s Market in Eureka, said the lack of Canadians is having a huge impact on his grocery store, which has seen sales drop by half so far this summer. The store normally employs about 50 people, and while Skranak hasn’t had to let anyone go, he wasn’t able to hire some local college students home for the summer like he normally would.
But the border closure is impacting more than just the bottom line, he said. Besides the second homeowners, many Canadians who live just over the border in communities like Grasmere, Baynes Lake and Elko used to come down to do their shopping in Eureka because it’s closer for them than Cranbrook or Fernie. (Prior to the pandemic, Skranak would regularly send 750 shopping fliers to addresses north of the border). In some ways, Skranak said, the border closure has cut the community in half.
“They’re locals too,” he said. “I used to see these people a few times a week, and now I haven’t seen them in months. It’s weird not seeing them.”
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