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Frustration builds in Montana border towns as 'temporary' closure drags on

by JUSTIN FRANZ
| July 16, 2021 7:00 AM

No one thought it would last this long.

On March 18, 2020, the United States and Canada announced they would "temporarily" close the world's longest border to nonessential travel to slow the spread of COVID-19. Nearly 16 months later, it's still "temporarily" closed.

While the country and Montana emerge from the pandemic and the economic downturn it created, recovery in the Eureka area has been stunted by the ongoing border closure. For years, the Tobacco Valley's economy was supported by tourism, specifically from Canadians visiting Lincoln and Flathead counties. Many even purchased second homes along the shore of Lake Koocanusa. And while American tourists are flooding the nearby Flathead Valley, filling short-term rentals and visiting Glacier National Park in record numbers — the northern part of Lincoln County is considerably quieter.

"We're hurting hard," said Larry Stewart, owner of Abayance Bay Marina in Rexford. "For years, the Canadians kept our restaurant and marina full."

This month, Canada began easing its border-crossing restrictions. Specifically, Canadian citizens who are vaccinated and have traveled out of the country no longer have to quarantine for 14 days upon returning home. But the accepted reasons for travel remain limited. All nonessential travel between the United States and Canada, including tourism, remains prohibited until at least July 21.

When the border will reopen completely is unclear. On Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked during an event in British Columbia when the border would open to nonessential unvaccinated visitors. "I can tell you right now that's not going to happen for quite a while," he said.

Stewart and others are frustrated that restrictions are not being lifted faster, and they worry that the cautious approach has resulted in long-lasting damage to the local economy and community.

Stewart said that most summers he has to hire local kids to help direct traffic in the marina parking lot, but he hasn't had to do that this year. Over the Fourth of July weekend, he said, the lot was never more than a quarter full. Besides the marina and restaurant, Stewart has a stage and usually books musical acts through the summer. In years past, he never felt the need to advertise much outside the Tobacco Valley, knowing that Canadians with second homes or camping at one of the nearby RV parks would easily fill the venue. But this year he's worried. He needs to sell about 1,000 tickets to break even, but he's only sold about 300 for the Larkin Poe show this weekend, and country duo Big & Rich, scheduled for Aug. 1, isn't selling much better.

"We booked these shows earlier this year in hopes that the border would be open, but it just didn't happen," he said.

Mike Lancaster, a real estate agent in Eureka, said that some Canadians who owned second homes in the area have sold because of the prolonged border closure.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to keep a property if you can't go to it," he said.

The border closure has also separated Lancaster's family. His father lives in Grasmere, British Columbia, just north of Eureka, and he hasn't seen him in over a year because of the closure. While "immediate family members" have been allowed to cross the border at times, Lancaster said the rules are confusing and his dad didn't want to deal with a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon returning from a trip that before last year he made with ease. Prior to the pandemic, many Canadians along the border got their groceries in Eureka, instead of making the 45-minute drive north to Fernie.

State Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said the prolonged closure has split both families and the closely knit communities that straddle the border. He said it's particularly frustrating that the border is still closed even as case numbers fall and vaccination rates rise.

"We flattened the curve and averted disaster, so it's time to open the border," he said.

Cuffe isn't the only elected official calling for the border to reopen. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester have been calling for a reopening for months. In June, Daines introduced legislation to reopen the border completely within 20 days, but the measure would do little good without cooperation from officials on the Canadian side.

While Cuffe said getting Eureka's economy moving again is his immediate concern, he's also concerned about the long-term impacts the continued closure may create. For decades, the border has been a practically arbitrary line in the sand for locals with friends and family on either side. He worries that those communities will be just a little more distant once it does open.

"For generations this has been the friendliest border in the world, but I'm not sure if we can really say that right now," he said.