Government officials have closed a loophole that has enabled cross-border couples and families to reunite at Peace Arch Provincial Park during the pandemic.
As of 8 p.m. June 18, the park – located on the South Surrey/Blaine border – closed and will remain so until “it is deemed safe” to reopen it,” a news release issued Thursday morning by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy states.
The closure – which one South Surrey woman has described as heartbreaking – “addresses the public safety and traffic concerns in neighbouring communities due to a significant increase in the number of park visitors,” the release continues.
The decision was not made by public health officials, Dr. Bonnie Henry noted during her daily update on the pandemic Thursday afternoon.
“It was not closed because of COVID-19, it was closed because of concerns around numbers of people and issues in the community,” Henry said.
“The issues are related to COVID-19, but not specifically the risk of transmission.”
The park reopened on May 14, just over a month after all provincial parks were closed as part of actions to help address the spread of COVID-19.
Since then, parking lots and local access roads have been overwhelmed with nearly twice the number of vehicles compared to peak days in the summer season, resulting in illegal parking, the ministry’s release states. As well, attendance doubled compared to the same period compared to last year, leading to an increase in pedestrians along roadways.
Measures taken to manage the number of visitors – including increased enforcement, installation of a permanent gate at the park entrance and reducing park hours – “have not addressed the risk associated with the significant increases in visitors from both sides of the border.”
The release also points to recent exemptions announced to the Federal Quarantine Act, which allow immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to enter Canada to be with an immediate family member for a period of at least 15 days, as long as they are asymptomatic of COVID-19 and self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
Those exemptions have been criticized by some as “not helping” those who have jobs or other commitments.
South Surrey’s Birgit Heinbach – whose husband Ian Geddes lives in Blaine – said the park’s re-closure came as a complete surprise, and described it as “malicious… a bad solution,” particularly given there is no evidence the meetups have led to new COVID-19 cases.
The couple was among many who grabbed the last opportunity to meet their partners in the park Thursday.
“It was full, full, full – and we saw four weddings,” Heinbach told Peace Arch News Friday.
“People wanted to stay until the last minute. There were a lot of tears and reunions, it was just heartbreaking… not knowing when they were going to see each other again.”
Heinbach added that the closure may ultimately cost her her job, as she is planning to take all of August off to fly down – via three planes – to stay with Geddes.
Henry on Thursday acknowledged the challenges of being separated, and the opportunity that the park being open had created for some to reconnect with their loved ones across the border.
“But like the rest of us in the province, we need to find other ways of being able to contact our families and friends and neighbours who live in Washington State and other parts of the world where we’ve had challenges,” she said.
The park was quiet on Friday, with barricades erected at multiple points, including at the Beach Road exit that leads to the parking lot. Police and border officers could be seen patrolling 0 Avenue, while area residents who said they typically cross the park while walking their dogs were instead strolling the border road.
Meanwhile, others could be seen walking their dogs on the U.S. side of the park.