BC Parks rangers added rocks to the access road to Peace Arch Park this week, following an influx of visitors prompted by the site’s reopening earlier this month. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Influx of cross-border visitors to Peace Arch Park sparks concern COVID-19 could spike

Police, parks officials say patrols, education and signage have all been increased

Officers with the RCMP’s border-enforcement team are increasing patrols and education efforts at Peace Arch Park, following a sudden increase in cross-border visits at the provincial site that prompted concerns around the potential for a spike in COVID-19.

Semiahmoo First Nation officials raised concerns with government and health authorities this week, after visitors from both sides of the border jumped at the opportunity its reopening presented to reconnect with family and friends – with the majority foregoing federal and provincial social-distancing and self-isolation guidelines.

“We have a gap here where people are finding a way to get around a provincial health order,” band councillor Joanne Charles told Peace Arch News Tuesday.

“It could become serious. If there’s any other additional outbreaks, it would be sad to see that they came from this additional effort.”

The provincial government announced earlier this month that select B.C. parks, including Peace Arch, would reopen for day use as of May 14.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Selected B.C. parks set to open for day use May 14

READ MORE: Canada–U.S. border to stay closed to non-essential travel until June 21: Trudeau

RCMP Cpl. Daniel Michaud, media relations for federal enforcement, said Friday (May 29) that while police were ready for the park’s reopening, its popularity – visitor numbers were described as in the “hundreds” over the U.S. Memorial Day weekend – was a surprise.

“The influx… we didn’t really see that coming,” Michaud said.

“But then when we saw, OK, there was a lot of people trying to get in contact with family… some rules and some initiatives were taken to take care of that.”

Charles said she alerted Fraser Health and provincial health officials, as well as BC Parks and border integrity officers, after seeing tents pitched in the park and an excessive number of illegally parked vehicles that all-but-blocked the road into the parking lot. The latter created concerns around access to the park for first responders in the event of an emergency, Charles said.

Park visitors, she noted, were not hesitating to get close to each other.

Those who have been separated by the border during the pandemic have “found that this is a place where they can reunite,” Charles said.

“We have American families or American individuals coming up here to visit with Canadians and not abiding by the federal quarantine order by quarantining when they come to Canada.

“Unfortunately, that could come with a number of serious health risks for each of them and/or whoever they’re working with.

“But, they’re in an international park. I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to say it’s a grey area.”

Michaud agreed the park – 17 hectares situated between the two ports of entry – is “no man’s land.” As long as visitors stay within its boundaries, they can move freely between the two countries.

“But there’s still this restriction of crossing borders and it becomes important for the spread (of COVID-19),” Michaud said. “We don’t want this to be an area where the pandemic can start picking up,” he said.

Michaud said non-RCMP changes instituted in recent days include a rule against enclosed tents, and the installation of rocks along the side of the access road into the park, to discourage illegal parking.

With respect to provincial and federal guidelines for social distancing and mandatory self-isolation for out-of-country travellers, however, enforcing that is “hard to do,” Michaud said.

“We know that’s the message, everybody’s responsibility is to talk about that message,” he said.

“We’re there to enforce the law and if we see people are gathering in a way that’s unsafe, we’re supposed to intervene.”

Michaud noted that RCMP is working with partners including BC Parks, the Canada Border Services Agency and the U.S. Border Patrol to “monitor the situation and patrol the area.”

Surrey RCMP Cpl. Joanie Sidhu added that the detachment’s COVID-19 Compliance and Enforcement Team has also been conducting patrols, in partnership with park rangers.

“The officers have been educating visitors of the ban on raising tents and provincial park staff have posted signage throughout the park regarding the tent ban,” she said.

Ministry of Environment officials acknowledged the difficulty of the past three months for those with loved ones living across the border, but implored for continued adherence to guidelines and orders that were put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We must continue to practice proper physical distancing, especially when interacting with people living outside of the country,” a statement provided by the ministry reads.

Park rangers will be patrolling with RCMP this weekend, the statement adds.

The federal government on May 19 announced an extension of the ban on non-essential travel across the border to June 21. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Friday that border-closure exceptions are now being considered for families that are divided between the two countries.

READ MORE: Feds looking at ways to reunite families amid COVID-19 border restrictions with U.S.

– with files from Aaron Hinks

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In this photo taken May 17, 2020, rhododendrons bloom along a path leading to Peace Arch Park at the border between the U.S. and Canada, in Blaine, Wash. With the border closed to nonessential travel amid the global pandemic, families and couples across the continent have found themselves cut off from loved ones on the other side. But the recent reopening of Peace Arch Park, which spans from Blaine into Surrey, British Columbia, at the far western end of the 3,987-mile contiguous border, has given at least a few separated parents, siblings, lovers and friends a rare chance for some better-than-Skype visits. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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