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As border reopens, uncertainty surrounds Washington towns that rely on Canadian tourism

Vaccinated Canadians can now drive into Washington after a 20-month pandemic closure. But there are still costly deterrents in place.

BLAINE, Wash. — The "Welcome Back" banner flapped back and forth, and the signs were out, acting as a red carpet of sorts for visiting Canadians. That's because, for the first time in 20 months, Canadians were allowed to cross the land border into the United States. 

Yes, they have to be vaccinated. And yes, they'll need to be equipped with proof of a negative COVID-19 test to return home. But, for a city starved of tourism dollars, it is badly needed.

"We lost 50% of customer base, just like that, for 20 months or whatever it was," said Mark Seymour, who owns the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company.

His restaurant was humming on Monday.  He said American customers kept them "cranking on" during the summer, but the fall and winter are expected to be a challenge, with limited outdoor seating and an already expected drop in customers.  

"The issue is uncertainty. We might get a big push today, a big push Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Are we going to have that same bump the following weekend?"

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Still, you could call it cautious optimism.  At the Semiahmoo Resort, Golf Course and Spa, there is talk about staffing up to handle a Canadian influx.

"40% of our (course) members are Canadian, so we haven't seen them in 20 months," said Semiahmoo Hotel Manager Micah Mullen. "I'm getting emails from our Canadian guests every day." 

Yet, in another Whatcom County community, the outlook was less rosy. Brian Calder, who runs the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce, said the damage has been done.  

"We've lost businesses, we've lost employees, we've lost the economy of Canadian people," he said. The Point is the rare exclave in America, surrounded by water on three sides and two land border crossings without any significant air or water service.  

"We're going to be in for a long haul," he added.

RELATED: 'It's a ghost town': Point Roberts residents plead for better US/Canada border access

"I don't know why it's taken so long," acknowledged Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, a Democrat who represents the district and has been critical of the Biden Administration over reopening the border. 

"We needed to open the border sooner," she said on Monday while standing at the Peace Arch, noting that the rules had already been relaxed for air travel between the US and Canada. "The science is the same if you're coming by plane or coming by the border."

She said that the crossing needs to be streamlined, and it could help both countries' interests to have some form of rapid COVID-19 testing near border crossings. There is also the question of whether Canada will relax testing rules for day-trippers, which was traditionally a big part of Whatcom County's tourism business before the pandemic started.

RELATED: Costly COVID-19 test requirement may deter Canadian shoppers from Washington stores

"We've reached out to our Canadian counterparts to understand what their plan is here, we haven't gotten an answer," said DelBene.

Still, after so many stops and starts, and false alarms about a border reopening, today was a good start.

"It's a huge positive step, and it comes at the right time," said Seymour.

Added Mullen, "This is really exciting news, not just for Semiahmoo but for the Blaine community."

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