Public safety officials say they’re concerned that Canadian residents are frequenting a small park on the U.S.-Canada border as a way to circumvent public health and Quarantine Act requirements while meeting loved ones, and they’re warning those that do may face fines or other penalties.
In recent months, after the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to easy cross-border travel, some Canadian residents have been hopping a ditch along the border to go hang out with friends and family from the American side in Washington’s Peace Arch Historical State Park. Some of those who meet pitch tents for a little privacy, and when they’re done their international socializing, they return home with what nearby residents like Cynthia Adams and her husband, Keith Fortune, say is little or no intervention from police or border officials.
For Adams and Fortune, the fear is that those who are using the park could be exposed to COVID-19 on the U.S. side, yet aren’t being instructed to quarantine when they return to the Canadian side, as are other travellers.
“We have compassion for the people not being able to see each other,” Adams said. “We’re not angry. We’re more concerned about the people jumping over and jumping back.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, recently said she wasn’t aware of any COVID-19 cases related to people meeting outdoors at the park.
For Adams, that’s not enough.
“Maybe we’ve just been damn lucky,” she said.
Everyone in the region has been forced by public health orders to cut off access to their family and friends, Fortune said. He’s worried that the behaviour in the park could become a sign that others can start to flout the rules elsewhere. He had a message for health authorities: “Step up to the plate and close this down.”
Kris Clark, a spokesman for the RCMP’s Federal Serious and Organized Crime unit, offered a bit of history on the area in question. On the Canadian side there is Peace Arch Provincial Park, which is now closed. Across the border is its similarly named U.S. counterpart, and the parks jointly celebrate the enduring peace between the two countries. Visitors can freely travel between the two green spaces as long as they return to their point of entry, he said.
Jason Givens, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, drilled down into that last idea a little further.
“Canadians and Americans who enter the park and return to the country from which they entered the park, have technically not made entry to the other country,” he explained.
Mark Stuart, a spokesman with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), said Peace Arch Provincial Park isn’t a designated point of entry, and so the CBSA isn’t responsible for oversight there.
“What I can tell you is that all persons who cross an international boundary line and then return to Canada should be reporting to the CBSA,” he said. That principle applied “no matter where” they crossed, Stuart added, and he said those who enter Canada may be subject to quarantine measures. Failure to report to CBSA may result in penalties or charges, he said.
Washington state’s park has remained open during the pandemic and it’s been busy. In recent days, B.C. residents reported seeing more than 80 tents pitched there. Anna Gill, a spokeswoman with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said staff there are asking people in the park to opt for sunshades rather than pitch tents.
Gill said border patrol has a presence in the U.S. park, and Clark, with the RCMP, said the Federal Border Integrity Program has increased enforcement on the Canadian side.
“From a public health perspective, it is concerning that individuals would continue to use the park as a means of circumventing the public health (or) Quarantine Act requirements, especially during this most recent spike in coronavirus cases,” Clark said.
“Enforcement of this issue is ongoing and individuals who are found failing to comply with the order may be subject to fines.”
Fraser Health declined to comment.