SPOKANE — They may be remote, but the small towns that straddle the U.S.-Canadian border in Washington, Idaho and British Columbia haven’t been able to evade the ramifications of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With the border largely closed, stay-home orders in effect, and families and communities unable to connect across the national dividing line, those towns are struggling to cope, even if their COVID-19 rates aren’t as high as they are in more populated areas.
The Rev. Tara Leininger is a busy person in a small town in northeast Washington – she’s the mayor, a pastor and a theater director.
Like many other small towns hit by changes to industry, Metaline Falls – population 233 – is trying to redefine itself.
It used to be home to a profitable zinc mine operated by Teck Washington Inc., but the Pend Oreille mine was temporarily closed in 2009, a year after Leininger was elected mayor, and 165 employees were laid off.
The mine reopened for a while, but closed for good last July, leaving a small skeleton crew in place.
Metaline Falls has turned to tourism and outdoor recreation to help rebound. But now Leininger sees how the shelter-in-place orders are altering this new way of life.
“We’re buckling down and minding our social distances and all the churches have followed the directive,” she said. “The Cutter Theater closed down, all of its events have been canceled and we’re just waiting to get to the other side of this and reboot and see what happens.”
Pend Oreille County remains among five counties in Washington without a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Leininger said Congregational United Church of Christ, where she is pastor, is home to “10 to 15” for regular Sunday worship. It’s all being done through the internet now.
“There’s all sorts of worship services through our denomination that are available online,” she said.
City Hall consists of her, a part-time assistant and a full-time maintenance worker, who also operates the snowplow in winter.
“It is so quiet, with Teck having closed,” she said of her town of 233 residents. “The mining operations – things got really, really quiet. We used to have traffic twice a day as the miners were going back and forth, and now that doesn’t happen.”
The border station used to be open 8 a.m. until midnight for workers on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border to come and go, but the station closes at 8 p.m. now and is limited to government and emergency officials due to the pandemic.
The number of people to cross the border on a daily basis might not have been many, but everyone counts in a small town.
“The people who are affected by the cut hours are really affected by it,” Leininger said. “And it really doesn’t matter how many those are, it still affects us.”
While the daily commute in Metaline Falls isn’t stressed by the closures, the community will really start to feel the effect as the weather gets nicer.
“We don’t have that kind of traffic pattern,” Leininger said. “Ours was – especially in the summer – ours is tourism. Ours was people who are enjoying the outdoors, with a lot of people hiking and biking.
“If people aren’t able to do their traveling, especially in the summer … ,” she said, trailing off.
Nancy Croll co-owns with her husband downtown Bonners Ferry’s Boundary Consignments and is a representative on the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Her business is deemed essential since it’s a clothing store that carries baby items. But she doesn’t have the physical capability of staying open without being able to pay employees, so the shop has gone to an appointment-only basis.
“It definitely is affecting local businesses,” she said. “I know a few other businesses in our area that do appointments, but most businesses have had to shut down due to the shelter-in-place order, and even before that.”
Bonners Ferry is a town of roughly 2,500 that depends on tourism.
“A lot of our traffic is in our downtown area,” Croll said. “We have a fair amount of boutiques and antique shops and stuff like that. And this is usually the season that we get started.
“We have a lot of customers from Creston (B.C.), Calgary, and this is the time of year that the majority of retail shops in our area start expecting to see an increase in sales after a slow winter. So, it has been, you know, a little challenging.”
But it’s not just tourism. Some of the places that local residents frequent on both sides of the border on a regular basis for groceries and other necessary supplies are now completely cut off.
“Some people here have dual citizenship or they have family on the other side,” Croll said. “We personally live about 15 minutes from the border and would go into Creston or go out to dinner or whatever and can’t do that right now.”
She said some folks in Boundary County have had to venture to Sandpoint or Coeur d’Alene for supplies they could normally get in Creston.
“Bonners Ferry is a small community that is very, very focused on supporting local businesses and trying to make sure that everybody survives,” she said.
Many locals are frequenting the restaurants that are still serving takeout or delivery as much as possible in support of their neighbors.
“We’re still trying to do our part to keep putting money into the economy,” she said.
Croll said the town will pull strength from its past to get through the pandemic.
“For the chamber, our main focus is just making sure we try to help everyone stay positive. Bonners Ferry is a pioneer town and we’re kind of used to doing things the hard way,” Croll said. “So we’re just gonna get through this just like we would anything else.”
Lower Kootenay Band Chief Jason Louie said the coronavirus-caused closure of the U.S.-Canadian border is especially difficult for his people, whose lands span that national division.
“This affects the Ktunaxa Nation,” he said. “It impacts us quite heavily because our territory, before the establishment of the 49th parallel, was always where we are, so the border comes into effect.”
The Lower Kootenay Band and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, along with other bands in B.C. and Montana, are part of the Ktunaxa Nation.
“Our nation is split in half,” Louie said. “So we’re deeply impacted.”
Like many other communities near the border, tourism is an important part of their economy.
One of the Lower Kootenay Band’s main businesses, in addition to its logging interests, is the Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, located on Kootenay Lake.
Louie described a “constant flow of customers” from Washington, Idaho and Montana that has evaporated.
“We made a tough decision – before it became mandatory – that everything shuts down,” he said. “We were thinking in the best interest of the health and well-being of our customers that we closed, probably about two weeks ago, before the mandatory orders came.”
The proximity to the border, which has been closed to nonessential travel, means the imaginary lines between two countries that allowed uninterrupted work and family life are no longer blurred.
“We’re literally five minutes from the Idaho border,” Louie said. “We frequently go down to the United States to visit with our relatives, whether that was in ceremony or just to visit through other cultural events like powwows.”
He said many cultural events have already been canceled or postponed. Families among the community have members on both sides of the border.
“It’s hard to even count because there’s so many,” Louie said.
“We’re sheltering in place and we’re trying to wait it out. It’s tough. It’s tough.”
Louie said, like many, he’s using the internet to stay in touch with others, including a daughter who works at a nursing home in Seattle.
“It’s relatively new to me, but it is a luxury that I can’t imagine what it’d be like if we didn’t have FaceTime, we didn’t have texting,” he said.
Still, it’s not the same as being in person.
“There is a lot of grief,” Louie said. “I know we’re gonna be able to reunite at some point but there is a profound sadness right now.”