Businesses In A Montana Border Town Suffer Without Traffic In And Out Of Canada

Jul 20, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 10:26 am

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The U.S.-Canada border crossing north of Eureka, Mont., is quiet these days. No buses or vans packed with mountain bikes and vacationing families. Just a single logging truck. 

"No traffic hardly at all," says David Clarke, owner of the First & Last Chance Bar and Duty Free Store.

On a normal summer, he says, "you'll see a lineup at the border going both ways. You'll have people walking in and buying pop or candy bars or chips." 

But today Clarke's store is mostly empty. It's been this way since March 18, when the Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to essentially shut down their shared land border in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Commercial trucks can still pass through, but almost everyone else can't. As the shutdown drags on into its fifth month, small towns and businesses along the world's longest international border are struggling.

"All the revenue streams are down," Clarke says. "The duty free is nonexistent and basically, what we put in the bank from the duty free gets us through the winter."

Tourism makes up a fifth of the county economy here and many businesses in Eureka, with a population of 1,118, rely on the tens of thousands of Canadians who cross this border every year. Some are travelling to national parks such as Yellowstone or Glacier. Others own vacation homes and spend their summers in Eureka.

"From attending our churches to keeping our restaurants and shops open, they play a tremendous part [in the economy]," says LaVerna Munro, owner of Mountain Gift & Home in downtown Eureka. 

Munro has owned the gift shop for almost three decades and says more than half of her business comes from north of the border. She says they like purchasing funny, off-color signs, cards and socks, as well as $400 wind chimes and beautiful ceramic mugs. 

"Of course, with no Canadians this year, we haven't been selling those," she says. 

Munro estimates her revenues have dropped 60%. If the border shutdown continues into the fall and winter she says she'll close her doors forever. Already a couple of her friends in nearby border towns have done just that. Munro fears this pandemic has echoes of when Eureka's logging industry collapsed in the mid-2000s.

"We used to have two lumber mills here and the two mills have since shut down, which is sad. Put many people out of work," she says. "Now people ask me what our economy is and I say, 'Canadians.'"

But even with all this uncertainty and turmoil, Munro believes closing the border was the right thing to do. 

"It didn't help our town but probably it was [right] for Canada," she says. "Our numbers are way higher than them and I can understand where they don't want us up there. Definitely I can understand."

The U.S. has seen a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks and it has the highest death toll from the virus in the world, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Canada, on the other hand, has their outbreak largely under control. Munro blames the U.S. outbreak and the ongoing border closure on the Trump administration. 

"I would go right to the top, to the president, for not taking it seriously in the beginning," she says. 

A majority of Americans agree with Munro's sentiments, according to recent surveys from Gallup and university researchers. They also believe the pandemic is getting worse, and more than two-thirds say that Trump has done a poor job handling the crisis. Part of that criticism is driven by the president leaving much of the U.S. response up to the states. This has led to a mish-mash of local responses. 

In libertarian-leaning towns such as Eureka, it's meant a lack of locally-led action. In the days before Montana's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, issued a statewide mask order for counties with more than four cases, only a handful of people downtown were voluntarily wearing them. Munro believes this is because many are Trump supporters. 

"If we had a leader that maybe would enforce it or say, 'Wearing a mask is good,' they might do it," she says. 

But there are people here, such as Matthew Barrett, who believe the threat of the virus is overblown. 

"It's hard to not feel like we're being played," he says.

Barrett owns Montana Shipping Depot and makes a majority of his money through Canadians, who ship packages to his business at a cheaper U.S. price and then cross the border to pick them up. He estimates his revenues are down 90% due to the border closure. He's frustrated by and skeptical of the pandemic, which he calls the "scam-demic."

"What I've seen is an agenda being worked by the fearmongers," he says. 

Those fearmongers, he says, include everyone from liberal politicians to the media to the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, "who the more we listened to, the less believable he became." 

Barrett's opinions illustrate a startling dichotomy in America these days – one the pandemic is highlighting. Some people are losing trust in institutions that are designed to keep us safe, knowledgeable and secure.

Barrett doubts the CDC's official death count and believes elected officials and public health experts are making decisions based on politics, not science. He concludes that the pandemic is mostly a ruse to get President Trump out of office – drum up the threat, kill the economy, and then blame it all on him.

"That is literally how cold-hearted and calculating they are. They would hurt their own people for a win in November," he says.

It's a sentiment echoed by President Trump. But regardless of politics, the nation's top health protection agency, which is overseen by the Trump administration, has confirmed more than 130,000 deaths due to the novel coronavirus and projects that number could reach 220,000 by November. 

That doesn't bode well for reopening the U.S.-Canada border anytime soon. 

But as many businesses in Eureka endure the loss of Canadian dollars, there is an economic brightspot – Americans are coming to Montana from all over the U.S. to purchase land and homes, according to realtors.

"We're busier now than we've ever been in 11 years of selling real estate," says Gideon Yutzui, a broker at High Mountain Realty. "[People] feel like this is one of the last best places and I tend to agree with them."

Part of that may be due to Montana's image as a summer tourism destination. Vacation rental bookings are humming along despite the pandemic, and visitation to nearby Yellowstone National Park was at or above normal levels in the last week of June. The state, after all, currently has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. However, it also has one of the fastest-growing number of cases in the nation, as well. This doesn't worry Yutzui, however.

"I deal with a lot of out-of-state buyers and I try to be very careful," he says. "I take my vitamins and I try to keep my hands washed. So I've not dealt with a deep fear at all on a personal level."

That deep fear of COVID-19, he says, is also combated by his faith. Yutzui pastors at a local Christian church. 

"As one of God's children I think that we encounter danger and we can still have a calm," he says. "I put my faith in Jesus and the worst that could happen to me is that I die and go home to eternity with Jesus."This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado and KUNM in New Mexico. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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