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‘I foresee a lot of problems’: Border policy expert, business owner worry about US border reopening logistics

One Blaine business owner is now worrying whether logistical challenges to crossing the border will keep Canadian customers away.

BLAINE, Wash. — Fully vaccinated travelers visiting on non-essential business will be able to cross the Canadian border into the United States starting Nov. 8.

Now that the U.S. has confirmed the border is reopening, questions linger surrounding what exactly Canadians will need to do to get stateside.

At Kelle Hagen’s shipping and warehouse business in the border town of Blaine, the work has been mostly “warehousing” for the past year and a half.

Some 15,000 packages are stacked nearly to the ceiling in two warehouses – all waiting to be picked up by her Canadian customers who have no way to claim them.

“When 99% of our customers are from Canada it makes owning a business pretty challenging,” Kelle said.

Canadians spend about $140 million in Whatcom County alone every year. The continued closure has economically crippled the isolated American outpost of Point Roberts, accessible only through Canada.

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In the first year of the pandemic, sales tax for the city of Blaine dropped by 16% and gas tax fell by 68%.

Even with good news about the border, Kelle is still concerned about specifics, like which vaccines will be accepted by American authorities.

"A lot of the Canadians have mixed doses," Kelle said. "What’s the government take on that? They still haven’t announced that. Will they still have to have a negative COVID test to go back into Canada? That costs money. Will they be willing to pay it if they’re just coming to pick up a package?"

Dr. Laurie Trautman runs the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. She said there still isn’t a system in place to properly process Canadians crossing into the U.S.

“I foresee a lot of problems,” Trautman said. “In a typical border environment, the delays a lack of a system would cause would be enormous. I’m hoping we’ll move toward a system that’s digital, interoperable between Canada and the U.S., but we’re definitely not there yet.”

Whether Canadian customers will return in pre-pandemic numbers after a 19-month closure is a different question altogether. Have Canadians’ shopping habits changed? Will traffic and border hassles keep them away?

As for Kelle, she’s simply hoping there truly is a light at the end of the border crossing.

“We thought they were going to open back up in July. When that didn’t happen, it really was a slap in the face,” Kelle said. “Everyone in Washington is super frustrated with the way the whole federal government has handled the border shutdown. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic.”