Battle brews above the neutral zone where cross-border parties meet and risk infection

BLAINE, Washington. – In the shadow of travel restrictions, a 42-acre park on the far western edge of the U.S.-Canadian dividing line has become a popular opening on an otherwise closed border where Americans and Canadians can congregate without requiring permission to pass an official border crossing.

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Called Peace Arch Park, it features lush green lawns, gardens, and a 67-foot white concrete arch built in 1921 that spans the border. It’s an often muddy, sometimes idyllic place. But the pandemic has turned this piece of historically neutral ground into a playing field for some fundamental public health issues.

Should people from Canada who have a lower incidence of Covid-19 take the risk of mingling with people from the United States? Should families who are masked and aloof be able to reunite for a day without quarantine? Who decides?

On a sunny weekend, couples and groups of up to 15 people spread out over a large central lawn and filled a dozen picnic tables. Some were several feet apart, others huddled together. Some wore masks, some didn’t. Laughing noises came from children in the large playground. And everything was quiet on the eastern edge of the park, where visitors had set up dozens of tents, supposedly to facilitate conjugal visits.

An American park ranger made regular rounds and asked the groups to stay physically apart. Although dozens of high-pole surveillance cameras kept vigil throughout the parking lot, no police were in sight.

Canada closed its land borders to all but a select few groups a year ago, and its side of the park has been closed since late June. Even so, Canadians are free to jump over a small ditch of grass that runs along 0 Avenue in Surrey, British Columbia, and the Washington state side remains open after a brief closure at the start of the pandemic.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, stationed every few houses along 0 Avenue, will require proof of citizenship when park visitors alight and then suggest that returning Canadians be quarantined.

This is vastly different from traditional passage through an immigration point like the one near the park, where anyone heading to Canada must sign up for a strictly enforced 14-day quarantine.

And most Americans have to be in an exempt group and have a negative Covid test. Anyone who claims “family relationships” must be able to prove this to a border official. And even then, they have this 14-day quarantine.

Immigration attorney Len Saunders, who lives in Blaine, Washington, comes to the park most days to visit his clients. “It’s a lifeline for a lot of people,” he said. “Without the park, people would be effectively separated from their spouses, fiancés and partners.”

He has two customers in this situation: Canadian Katrina Gurr (29) and American Alexis Gurr (32). They each live a short drive from the border and met online in March of last year. “We just started talking and then couldn’t stop,” said Alexis.

They got married in July and today they sometimes talk in unison.

The rules of travel are complex and changing, more relaxed for entering the US and for air travel to Canada, but still daunting. The Gurrs visited each other for weeks but spent most of their first year as newlyweds. Katrina has applied for a green card that allows her to live and work in the United States. This process is expected to take about a year.

Meanwhile, Katrina walks the ditch one day most weekends. Alexis brings a tent and a small propane tank.

“During the football season, we watch the football game,” said Alexis.

“And we actually take a lot of naps,” said Katrina, finishing her wife’s sentence.

For the Zuidmeer family, the Peace Arch Park was a place of reunification. Father Bill and Mother Denise traveled there many times from their home 7 miles south in the past few months to see their son Peter and wife and child who live north of the park. The visits became particularly important after Bill was diagnosed with end-stage kidney cancer in December.

But what became Bill’s last visit to the park was almost a failure. The rules in Canada had changed – the Mounties warned Peter that to return to Canada he would have to show his real passport, not just the photo on his phone. The round trip would take an hour and a half. His father was already exhausted from the trip, and Denise had to return the special vehicle known as the Cabulance that she had rented to take him there.

Denise asked the Mounties for dispensation. For her, the point was that her husband had the chance to have a final reunion, sure because it was outside and everyone involved had been careful with physical distancing. “This is not tourism,” she said later. “They are families.”

The Mounties eventually gave Peter a brief and emotional hug, and Peter’s 3-year-old was allowed to sit on his grandfather’s lap for the last time.

Bill died at home 12 days later, on March 11, after his son made one final formal visit with a rigorous 14-day quarantine on his return.

Most park gatherings are happier. Saunders, the immigration attorney, said he has seen many weddings.

Some of the Canadians who live on or near 0 Avenue are turning down the congregations. The Canadian John Kageorge is mainly concerned about security issues, people smuggling things like guns or drugs. He also said, “People have to follow public health guidelines, and they don’t do that in the park.”

The fear of Covid is so widespread in Canada that, according to the New York Times, “Covid Shaming” – social media outing and threats to Covid-positive people – has become fervent. And Americans are often blamed. “There’s a big stigma in Canada that you’re not the best,” said Katrina Gurr.

The U.S. has a significantly higher rate of covid infections and deaths – more than 92,000 cases per million people compared to Canada’s 26,000 per million on Wednesday. However, it is unclear whether SARS-CoV-2 is spread outdoors or in the tents of the Peace Arch Park. After the issue was raised by the Canadian media in February, the British Columbia Prime Minister replied that his chief health officer had told him that the park had no outbreaks attributable to it.

The Canadian Health Department attributes only 0.3% of March cases to international travel. That estimate is likely to be low, however, according to Kelley Lee and Anne-Marie Nicol, global health policy experts at Simon Fraser University. In an essay on The Conversation, an online news site, they discover that only air travelers are being monitored. That leaves out the people in Peace Arch Park and key workers like truckers and health workers who regularly drive across the border.

“Important travelers go untested so we have no way of knowing what risk they pose,” Lee wrote in an email.

In the absence of clear information on the diffusion, the battle for the park remains a political one. Two members of the Liberal Party of Canada in the provincial legislature have urged the Prime Minister of British Columbia, a member of the New Democratic Party, to ask Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Democrat, to shut down the American side. However, the prime minister turned it down, saying international borders were an issue for the federal government in Ottawa.

Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said Washington was discouraging people to gather but did not indicate that action was imminent. In October last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the border closings would “last as long as we feel they have to”.

The Canadian side of the arc says, “Brothers who live together in unity.” At least for now, that’s true in the park, but not along the remaining 4,000 miles of border between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Saunders, the Gurrs and Zuidmeers as well as many other border watchers do not expect any changes anytime soon.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.


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