Residents of two isolated border towns in B.C. and Alaska are asking to be recognized as one community and exempted from Canada-U.S. border restrictions.
Non-essential travel between the United States and Canada was shut down in March, and Canada brought in further restrictions last week that would require Americans travelling to Alaska to take the most direct route. Some residents of the closely connected border towns are asking governments to end months of isolation for businesses, family and friends.
Stewart, B.C., and Hyder, AK, at the southeastern end of the Alaska panhandle on the Canada-U.S. border, are small mining towns that have been highly integrated for more than a century. Residents said the travel restrictions cause undue hardship, especially for people in Hyder, who rely on the neighboring town for groceries, gas and other supplies.
And with no cases reported in either district, they are petitioning Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and other levels of government in Canada and the United States to designate their region an “integrated trans-border community” so residents can cross without a mandatory quarantine at any time.
“Residents of Hyder and Stewart take the risks of exposure to COVID-19 very seriously and support measures that minimize those risks, recognizing that we all need to do our part,” said Carly Ackerman, dual citizen and Stewart resident.
“However, in this specific and unique situation, with no cases of the virus here, along with the extreme remoteness of the area, allowing these 500 residents special consideration as an integrated community is a reasonable request of government.”
The Canadian government’s policy says an asymptomatic person who enters Canada within the boundaries of an integrated trans-border community and who lives there can be exempted from the mandatory quarantine.
Ms. Ackerman and other residents recently formed a group called Hyder AK & Stewart BC COVID-19 Action Committee. She said the group directed the petition to Mr. Blair on Friday.
Hyder, with about 80 people, has no grocery store, gas station, medical clinic or ATM. Stewart Mayor Gina McKay said current policies allow Hyder residents to cross the border for essentials once a week.
Ms. Ackerman said the isolation will get worse once winter hits.
“We have this aging population in Hyder, who is very ill prepared for the winter coming, and that is why we’re really pushing hard right now for this.”
Caroline Stewart, who has lived in Hyder for nearly 50 years, said many people there have family in Stewart.
“Being denied access to my family is crushing to the soul,” she said. “We have got parents who’ve been unable to see their children for five months. They live two miles away.”
Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Mr. Blair, said the minister’s office is aware of the committee’s letter, and that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Canada were not taken lightly.
Ashley Lemire, a spokeswoman for CBSA, didn’t comment on the petition, but said healthy, asymptomatic individuals for whom crossing the border is essential for work and daily life, can still do so.
To be considered essential, travelling for goods such as medication, groceries and other necessities must be the only realistic option, she said.
Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the committee’s request sounds reasonable, although she is concerned about a recent increase in cases in Alaska.
She said in her daily briefing on Tuesday that the issue needs to be taken up with the federal government.
Ms. McKay said her council supports the petition. She added that isolation has been very taxing, and she is worried about people’s mental health.
“We have a long-standing history of basically being one community,” she said, adding that people in her town have been bringing essentials to the border for Hyder residents to pick up.
“We’re all essentially part of the same bubble. So we just feel like we should be able to go back and forth.”
With a report from Andrea Woo
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