Cut off from the rest of America, a small town endures lockdown

Cut off from the rest of America, a small town endures lockdown
Cut off from the rest of America, a small tow... 06:15

COVID had a pretty hard time finding its way to Point Roberts, Washington. There's been only one confirmed case there since the pandemic began. 

It is remote; on a map, Point Roberts looks like it should be a part of Canada, except that this fingertip of land dangles just below the 49th parallel, officially making Point Roberts part of Washington State. 

"They call it Pretend America, the world's largest gated community," laughed Jeff Ferguson.

He's kidding, sort of. The only way for Americans to get to the rest of the U.S. by land is a 24-mile drive through Canada. That means getting past two international border guards.

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By land, Point Roberts residents would need to drive 24 miles to reach the next U.S. community.  CBS News

"That's been our primary access to our country, is through another country, and it's just been built that way," said fire chief Chris Carleton, who is organizing about 1,000 vaccines for all the residents here. That's the good news.

The bad news? In keeping with U.S. and Canadian COVID travel restrictions, without an essential reason, no one – vaccinated or not – drives in or out of Point Roberts any more. 

"I know communities across the United States are suffering," Carleton said. "But because of our geographical oddity we've been disproportionately affected."

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Point Roberts, Washington, is almost five square miles of American soil unattached to the rest of America.  CBS News

If you found a plane, you could fly off, although what passes for the airport is a grass strip.

They've tried a ferry, too, but because of choppy seas, it sometimes can't make the crossing. And even if it does, then what? "Having to rent a car when you get there on the foot ferry, getting taxis, Ubers, a lot in my community don't have the funds to do that," Carleton said.

Despite the difficulties getting in or out, Canadian officials say the border restrictions are justified because residents in Point Roberts have most of everything they need.

Correspondent Lee Cowan asked, "They say that you're sort of self-sufficient?"

"That's a lie," said Brian Calder, the director of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce.

"But they say that though, right?"

"Well, yeah, but as someone who's never been here. We have no doctors here. We have no vets here. No medical facility like a drug store. We got a list of more things we don't have compared to everyone else than what we do have."

What they have in abundance is beauty, something nearby Canadians can't resist. They pour across the border in the summertime, quadrupling the population here. But now, all they can do is come to that invisible boundary (in this case marked by small yellow barricades) and look across.

Cowan met Maggie Morris at the border … the one she can't pass anymore.

"So, this little curb, it might as well be a 40-foot wall, huh?" asked Cowan.

"Exactly," Morris replied.

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Correspondent Lee Cowan talks with Maggie Morris across the U.S.-Canada border.  CBS News

She owns a cottage just a stone's throw from that border; so do a lot of other Canadians. You can tell which ones, because they haven't been allowed to tend to their properties in almost a year.

"It's devastating," Morris said. "I miss it like a family member I haven't seen in over a year, truly."

Cross-border commerce is the lifeblood of Point Roberts, making up as much as 85% of the annual income for the businesses here. Canadian Marianne McIntoch laughed, "My credit card thinks I've died and gone to heaven because I can't use it down here!"

Without Canadians, this little corner of America may have dodged COVID, but not its ripple effect.

Beth Calder runs a package receiving business. "There are some days we don't have a single customer," she said.

Canadians can avoid expensive international shipping fees on their Amazon and eBay purchases by picking them up across the border instead. But for almost a year, those packages have sat orphaned, some 2,000 of them.

Cowan asked, "And what does that do to your business?"

"It's crippling, it's very crippling," Calder replied. "Last March I had to lay off eight of my ten staff instantly, as soon as the border closed."

Canadians also used to cross the border for cheaper prices on eggs and milk. That's in part why Point Roberts' only grocery store is so big.

Owner Ali Haydon thought about closing when the border did, but she knew she couldn't. "If I close, there's no access to food for anyone," she said. "We've got to take care of the people that live here."

Some have already moved for good.

Not far from what used to be a busy street right along the border, the gas stations are empty. Restaurants are shuttered. A bank had left. "It's a ghost town," said Calder. 

At the Bald Eagle Golf Club, Rick Hoole and the rest of his grounds crew still tend to the empty fairways and bunkers, in the hopes that, one day, their town will get out of the rough. But it has to happen soon.

Cowan asked, "How many people do you normally get?"

"Usually right around 20,000 a year," Hoole said.

And this year? "None. I know, it's sad."

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Groundskeepers tend the links at the Bald Eagle Golf Club.  CBS News

Calder said, "The longer this goes on, the fewer people we're gonna have. They have to move for unemployment, 'cause there is none here."

"So, how long can that last though?" Cowan asked.

"Well, until we run out of people, period."

Point Roberts is a lifestyle as much as it is a destination. Residents pride themselves on their independence, so if they ask for a hand, they really mean it.

The fear is, in the age of COVID, they may be shouting into the wilderness. 

Chris Carleton said, "We can weather almost anything in our community. We're extremely resilient overall, and that comes with a double-sided sword, right? Because sometimes you can be resilient to the point that other people forget that you're here."

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American flags for sale at the town's only grocery store.  CBS News

     
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Carol Ross.