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B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Struggling without Albertans

Jennifer Coffman didn't expect to get hit with a double whammy at her restaurant in the tiny community of Field just west of the Alberta-British Columbia boundary this year.

Coffman has been running the Truffle Pigs Bistro and Lodge for the last 12 years.

Field, with a population of just under 200, sits along the Trans-Canada Highway, about 10 kilometres from the Alberta boundary, and relies pretty much solely on tourism.

COVID-19 seriously cut into international visits last year, so Coffman shut down for a couple of months. She expected things would improve this year. But things are tough again with the closure of a nearby section of the Trans-Canada Highway for construction this spring and fall, and Albertans being urged by the B.C. government not to travel to the province as the pandemic continues.

"I just keep going back to the Monty Python (movie scene) 'Not dead yet' and the guy's got his arms and his legs all cut off," Coffman said.

"I don't know how many legs and arms that I can have cut off before I just close down, take a deep breath, and gear up when it's time."

Coffman said Albertans accounted for about 80 per cent of business last year and about 50 per cent before the pandemic.

"We rely on Calgarians so heavily, right? Especially through this. Albertans are a huge, huge part of why we survive," Coffman said.

"Last summer was OK. I thought, 'I've got to count my lucky stars. I can stay open.' But ... this second one is hard."

A B.C. RCMP spokeswoman said technically the boundary isn't closed and there won't be any checkstops.

"There are no restrictions that preclude people from coming from Alberta," said Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet.

"If people are coming from Alberta and travelling to a health region, then they're required to stay within that health region and can go no farther."

Shoihet said any travel within B.C. has to be deemed essential.

"Please do not come to our province. Stay in your own province unless it's for essential travel.

"Stay home. We love you, but stay home."

The picturesque resort town of Fernie in southeastern B.C., less than an hour from the boundary, is hoping Albertans will continue coming this summer.

Brad Parsell, executive director of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, says the community is reliant on Alberta visitors.

"Fernie might as well be in Alberta for all intents and purposes. We're that reliant on Albertans, obviously in the tourism industry, but in our economy at large," he said.

"It's been incredibly challenging for the tourism industry to not have the welcome mat out to those folks at the moment."

Parsell said visits from Alberta probably account for 70 to 80 per cent of total business.

"It's a huge chunk ... for sure," Parsell said.

"This isn't just about arbitrary numbers. These are people's livelihoods and their lives."

Business remains slow at the Fernie Hotel and Pub, but manager Alicia Dennis said part of that can be blamed on poor weather and restrictions on indoor dining.

She said visitors from Alberta and Saskatchewan were a saving grace last summer.

"We definitely noticed a huge spike in people from Saskatchewan and Alberta coming here for vacations. It was definitely one of our busiest summers I've seen so far."

In Montana, the border closure between Canada and the United States is hurting the economy in Browning, a town on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

"A lot of our revenue for the local casino comes from folks in Lethbridge (Alta.), ... because we are a border town right next to the Canadian border," said spokesman James McNeely.

"I think the state of Montana has seen some impact from the lack of Canadian visitors. We don't see those plates anymore."



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