Osoyoos/Oroville border

The normally-bustling Canada/U.S. border crossing in Osoyoos is quiet and empty with hardly anyone crossing in either direction.

OSOYOOS — With a Washington state infection rate 10 times higher than B.C.’s, Osoyoos residents are generally happy to put up with some inconvenience and economic disruption caused by the closed international border to help keep COVID-19 at bay.

The federal government recently extended border restrictions to the end of July to help contain the spread of the virus. Estimates vary on how long they will last; some suggest it could be a year until the situation returns to normal. Canadian citizens and permanent residents are permitted to cross into Canada, along with Americans with essential reasons for coming here.

B.C. and Washington have comparable populations, five million in B.C. and 6.7 million south of the border. Yet Washington has reported vastly more cases of COVID-19 — 36,000 compared to 2,900 — and 1,354 deaths due to the virus compared to B.C.’s 177 fatalities.

“Personally, I’m glad the border is closed,” said CJ Rhodes, a member of Osoyoos town council and owner of a small business. “It seems an excellent way to help us deal with the virus in our area. Being so close to the border we could be quite vulnerable … so I’m happy that it’s closed.”

Rhodes said he has discussed the subject with “lots of people. … I get a sense that people aren’t unhappy about not being able to go down there because there seems to be a hotbed of the virus in Washington state.”

Murray Silk, who retired to Osoyoos 12 years ago, agrees with the sentiment: “I totally agree with keeping it closed. Better safe than sorry.

“I miss going down for gas and shopping, as much for the day trip as any savings. But I do like my Tillamook cheese.”

Downtown Osoyoos is five or 10 minutes by car from the border and many residents have grown used to hopping over the border for relatively cheap gasoline and groceries in Oroville, a town of about 2,000 just six kilometres from the border.

“You can go down there and buy eggs and cheese and fill up with fuel and save 25 or 30 bucks,” said Rhodes. “But the overall threat of the virus … far outweighs any inconvenience.”

Of course, there are varying opinions on the closed border. Long-time Osoyoos resident Arnie Polischuk is frustrated by the closure.

“From the time I moved here in ’94, I’ve never bought a tank of gas in Osoyoos. I’ve always bought my gas (in the U.S.) and I end up saving anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 dollars a year on it,” he said.

Polischuk said he also has a bank account at a Wells Fargo branch in Oroville, which he is unable to access.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t go across, get our gas, get our groceries or whatever we wanted and get (back) home. We’d see nobody,” he said.

The effect of the closed border on the tourism business — lifeblood of the Osoyoos economy — is mixed, according to Myers Bennett, another member of council and its representative on the board of Destination Osoyoos (DO) the town’s tourism marketer.

“Somewhere like the Hyatt at Nk’Mip, where they depend on a lot of high-end Americans … I would think that’s probably affected them a little bit,” said Bennett. “(But) the other, smaller places … basically they’re pretty full. Most of the people are from Penticton and Kelowna and Surrey.”

DO executive director Kelly Glazer was even more upbeat, insisting there has been virtually no effect.

“We don’t have a strong U.S. tourism clientele in Osoyoos, other than the people who live in Oroville and come here to shop and go to our restaurants” she said.

“It’s a story that a lot of media want to latch on to and there is nothing to tell for Osoyoos.”

Glazer added that as far as occupancy rates at Osoyoos accommodations, “It’s a normal July and August for Osoyoos. We are full.”

Bennett said local retailers have likely benefitted from the closed border as residents can’t run across the line for gas and groceries. “I kind of miss going to Oroville for gas and groceries and Betta Services. But as a result, I buy everything here.”

Rhodes concurs: “I think (the closure) is a really good thing for the economy in Osoyoos. (People) might not be travelling, but al last they’re purchasing stuff in this area … so I’m looking at that as positive.”

While Osoyoos is surviving the border closure reasonably handily, some of the businesses on Oroville are struggling for lack of Canadian customers.

The Texaco station about two minutes south of the border sells regular grade at the equivalent of 94 cents a litre, compared to $1.20 or so in Osoyoos.

Daniel Sanchez, one of two employees at the Oroville Texaco said that since the border closed business is down 90 per cent. The station formerly served Canadians nipping down for a fill-up and Americans heading north and topping up with the last cheap gas before the border.

The Texaco has reduced staff from three to two and reduced hours. But, said Sanchez, “We’re going to remain open and ride this out to the end.”

Betta Services is a downtown Oroville shipping/receiving business that many Osoyoos residents use as an address for on-line purchases that can’t be delivered to Canada. For a modest fee, Betta receives the packages and buyers pick them up and bring them back across.

Owner Betta Lidstrand said in an interview her business is down about 85 per cent since the border restrictions went into effect. She worries about the future of her own business and the economic well-being of the town.

“If (the border) doesn’t open up soon … I can say there are quite a few businesses in Oroville that might not make it,” she said. “I’ve been saying for years that Oroville runs off Canadians.”