Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Eureka prepares for border reopening

| November 9, 2021 7:00 AM


A sign at the First and Last Chance Bar welcomes Canadians. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)


Dewey Avenue, Eureka's main drag, on Nov. 4. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)


David Clarke, owner of First and Last Chance Bar, stands behind the duty-free counter Nov. 4. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)


Stephanie Rice, manager of Cafe Jax, stands behind the counter at the local eatery Nov. 4.

It’s been more than 19 months since Brandy Carvey last spent a holiday with her fiancé.

While it’s only a short drive from where Carvey lives with her son in Eureka to her fiancé’s home in Canada, the three might as well be living on different continents. Since the start of the

coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, restrictions have prevented Carvey and tens of thousands of others from regularly crossing the world’s longest land border to visit friends and family.

“It’s super hard for our children,” said Carvey on Nov. 5. “Our son doesn’t understand why he can’t go eight miles across the border to see his family.”

Along with separating relatives, the closure has strained many Eureka-area businesses. Before the pandemic, Canadians crossed the border daily to dine out and buy groceries.

After watching an estimated 40 percent of her customer base dry up, Carvey shuttered the coffee shop she operated in town in September. David Clarke, owner of First and Last Chance Bar, saw old faces disappear overnight and demand for his duty-free products plummet.

“We’ve been able to see a difference definitely with the border being closed,” said Stephanie Rice, who manages Cafe Jax on Eureka’s main drag. “We still have people traveling but that border keeps us going in the summertime and through the winter.”

With U.S. officials set to reopen land borders with Mexico and Canada for nonessential travel on Nov. 8, north Lincoln County may see a reprieve from the long closure starting this week.

But many locals are cautious of celebrating too soon, citing vaccine and COVID-19 testing requirements as obstacles for foreigners looking to make short trips across the border.

For Carvey, the policy change won’t affect much. Most of her Canadian family remains unvaccinated against the coronavirus, which means they cannot cross the land border under the new regulations.

Gretchen Lancaster, a real estate broker, said the vaccination requirement would keep her father-in-law, who went to high school in Eureka, from driving the 20 minutes across the border from the family farm.

“My daughter’s running cross country and he can’t watch her run. My son’s wrestling and he can’t be a part of that,” she said. “That’s hard when grandpa is probably in the last years of his life. To give up a couple years of that has been a real loss.”

Even for Canadians who are vaccinated, short trips across the border might be impractical due to expensive COVID-19 testing requirements. When returning home, most Canadian citizens will have to present proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken within 72 hours of their departure time. These tests can cost hundreds of dollars and can be difficult to find in northwest Montana.

Jon Leonard, a loan officer with Glacier Bank in Eureka, said some of the closest testing centers his Canadian friends had found were in Kalispell. The molecular tests at these centers could cost as much as $250.

Kathy Ness, office administrator at the Eureka Area Chamber of Commerce, has heard from many Canadians asking if the chamber could organize tests in north Lincoln County.

“I answer a lot of calls here and it’s like, ‘Can the chamber of commerce do anything for us?’ And it's … the testing. We don’t have anything to do with that,” she said.

One man Ness spoke with said it would cost him $1,600 to visit Eureka for the weekend when he factored in the price of his testing his family of four.

For Mike Cole, one of the owners of Montana Market, the travel requirements presented too much uncertainty for him to guess how business would change in the coming weeks.

“It’s difficult for us to say, ‘OK, let’s ramp up our product lines and we’ve got a 50-50 shot of it not happening,” he said.

Considering that many of Clarke's duty-free products include a sell-by date, he worried he might have to destroy some of his stock if the Canadians didn’t return following the border reopening.

Roger Harrison, owner of Trapper’s Saloon, said the testing requirements might be an inconvenience but didn’t think the regulations would stifle border traffic. As a Canadian himself, he said he knew his friends and family were used to getting tested north of the border.

“I feel like it might turn some people off, but there’s still going to be a lot of people that do it,” he said. “They’ve all had to be tested up there all the time.”

Although Eureka-area business owners were hoping to see Canadian traffic return to pre-pandemic levels, many locals said an influx of stateside tourists and new residents had made up for the economic deficit created by the border closure.

“Overall, sales here have gone pretty well with the increased tourist traffic and people moving here,” said Cole in regards to business at Montana Market.

Amid the bustle of lunch hour, Rice said that despite the dip in Canadian business, Cafe Jax stayed busy thanks to U.S. visitors.

With the real estate market booming, Lancaster said many Canadians with homes in the Eureka-area were looking to sell their property. Some have had to forgo visiting their stateside houses for nearly two years because of the restrictions, she said. Those who managed the trip had to substitute a series of flights for the typically short drive prior to the pandemic.

While their homes sat largely vacant, Canadian owners paid utility bills and taxes. For high-end properties, not having anyone on the grounds for months at a time could significantly drive up insurance claims.

“These poor Canadians were taking a beating on their real estate,” said Lancaster. “Luckily, the market was good and they were able to … get rid of it. But I don’t think a single one of them was happy about it.”

On the eve of the land border reopening, Lancaster said she had received many calls from clients planning trips to bring their belongings back to Canada.

Although some Canadians, irritated by pandemic restrictions in their home country, were looking to buy real estate in Lincoln County, Lancaster said the sharp decline in business from the north marked a significant shift in the local economy.

Leonard, with Glacier Bank, noted Eureka’s financial sector was seeing a similar trend; Americans from around the country, mostly retirees or teleworkers, are replacing Canadians.

“It used to be only a few states, but throw a dart at the map … and people are finding, not just Eureka and Libby, but this whole corridor,” he said.