Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on March 21, 2020. When the mayor of a village in southern Alberta stares across the border, he sees family and friends who just happen to call Montana home. The port of entry between Coutts, Alta., and Sweet Grass, Mont., is one of the busiest on the Canada-United States border, an important crossing on a trade route starting in Mexico. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke

‘It’s like ghost towns:’ Canada’s border communities adapt to COVID-19 changes

Sales have plummeted at businesses such as the duty-free shop and gas station

When the mayor of a village in southern Alberta stares across the border, he sees family and friends who just happen to call Montana home.

The port of entry between Coutts, Alta., and Sweet Grass, Mont., is one of the busiest on the Canada-United States border, an important crossing on a trade route starting in Mexico.

“We are basically twin communities,” says Jim Willett. “The people of the two communities grew up on both sides of the border.”

In similar communities across the country, the relationship with their American neighbours drastically changed when the border closed to most travellers last month to help fight the spread of COVID-19. It’s the first such closure since Confederation in 1867.

It is still open to people and businesses providing essential services.

The economy in many border communities is inherently linked to traffic between the two countries that brings people into cafes, gas stations and grocery stores. It also employs border agents, duty-free staff and brokers.

READ MORE: Critic, workers’ group ‘disappointed’ Trudeau chose Amazon to distribute PPE

As the global pandemic worsens south of the border, the crossings that tie communities on either side together are starting to represent fear.

From his front porch, Willett watches streams of semi-trailers pass by. The transport trucks are allowed to cross as they are deemed an essential service, so the economy hasn’t been hit hard yet. But Willett says there’s concern for people who do business on both sides of the border if it stays closed for too long.

There are also health worries. A significant portion of the 245 people who call Coutts home are older than 55, so some people are afraid when they see faces they don’t know in town.

“It’s that tenseness that is in the air all the time that is different. We would like that to go away but we know it’s not going to for awhile.”

In Amherstburg, Ont., many people are still crossing the border to work in Detroit as health-care providers. That has put leaders in the community, which is only a short drive from the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, in a difficult position. Some positive cases of the novel coronavirus have been linked to the workers.

“They are literally trying to save lives but … they are exposing themselves to the virus and quite possibly bringing it back,” says Aldo DiCarlo, the town’s mayor.

“That’s something you wouldn’t have if you weren’t a border community.”

Both sides depend on each other for commerce and a healthy economy, DiCarlo says. But on the Canadian side fear is growing because the virus seems to be spreading faster and wider in Michigan.

The mayor says the town is adapting its plans and precautions everyday.

“Living this right now is just crazy,” DiCarlo says. “Our town was really starting to thrive.

“Now driving around it’s like a Stephen King novel. It’s like ghost towns.”

Nearly every member of the communities near the border crossing in southern Manitoba knows someone who has been laid off or lost their job, says Emerson-Franklin Reeve David Carlson.

“It’s a scary time because the hopes are when we come out the other side, people will be able to get back to work and normal life, but that’s definitely uncertain at this time,” he says.

Sales have plummeted at businesses such as the duty-free shop and gas station. Others have closed. A significant portion of the economy relies on agriculture, so there’s also concern for farmers about sales across the border as time goes on, Carlson says.

At the same time, Carlson says, the challenges posed by COVID-19 have shown how resilient the community is. People are calling seniors daily, delivering groceries and ensuring that returning snowbirds have everything they need to self-isolate.

“Being in a more rural and slightly more isolated area, people are able to put things in a good perspective.”

READ MORE: ‘Hold our line’: 29 new cases of COVID-19 announced in B.C.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Saanich police see spike in excessive speeding compared to previous years

Nearly 100 excessive speeders caught since January 2020

Colwood branch drop-off to continue throughout summer

COVID-19 safety measures remain in place

Welcome to grilling season: Saanich firefighter talks barbecue safety tips

Grills should be cleaned, serviced prior to use, firefighter says

Cycling scavenger hunt comes to Tweed City

Cyclists scour Oak Bay for clues in Bike to Work Week event

Colwood woman launches Adopt a Grad

Facebook page aims to support students during pandemic

11 new COVID-19 cases in B.C. as top doc urges caution amid ‘encouraging’ low rates

Dr. Bonnie Henry also announced that two care home outbreaks would be declared over

Surrey mayor’s party under fire for ‘sickening’ tweet accusing northern B.C. RCMP of murder

Mayor Doug McCallum says tweet, Facebook post ‘sent out by unauthorized person’

Father’s Day Walk Run for prostate cancer will be virtual event this year throughout B.C.

The annual fundraiser for Prostate Cancer Foundation BC has brought in $2.5 million since 1999

Dr. Bonnie Henry announces official ban on overnight kids’ camps this summer

New ban comes after talking with other provincial health officials across the country, Henry says

Senior man in hospital after unprovoked wolf attack near Prince Rupert

Conservation officers are on site looking for the wolf

VIDEO: NASA astronauts blast off into space on SpaceX rocket

Marks NASA’s first human spaceflight launched from U.S. soil in nearly a decade

‘I knew what he wanted’: Kootenay man spends hours in tree as black bear patrols below

Francis Levasseur is no stranger to the outdoors, but a recent run-in with a bear caused quite a scare

PHOTOS: U.S. cities brace for increasing unrest over police killing of George Floyd

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has fully mobilized the state’s National Guard

$200,000 Maybach impounded after ‘L’ driver caught excessively speeding in Vancouver

Meanwhile, the supervisor sat in the passenger seat, police said

Most Read