Regan Steele and Rod Greenwood never imagined a park would play such a defining role in their relationship, but one year into the coronavirus pandemic, the border crossing of Peace Arch Park has served as a lifeline for couples in cross-border relationships.
Forty-one year-old Steele lives in Marysville, Washington, located about 80 miles (130 km) south of the U.S.-Canadian border. Each weekend she meets Greenwood, her Canadian boyfriend of six years, at the park.
Flanked by a tent, portable heater, coffee and hot chocolate, the couple spends time together doing jigsaw puzzles, listening to music and talking.
In March, 2020, the U.S.-Canada border was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The move initially barred all but essential workers from crossing.
In pre-pandemic times the Peace Arch Park was little more than a pit stop for travelers and commercial traffic as well as a picturesque picnic spot where families from nearby border towns gathered.
British Columbia closed its side of the park in June, but the American side remains open. Canadians are able to enter Washington state by parking in a residential area and walking about half a mile (800 meters) before crossing a shallow ditch dividing the two sides.
It was not immediately clear why Canadian residents are still permitted to come back into the country via the U.S. side of the park without having to comply with Canada’s border measures, including mandatory negative COVID-19 tests and a 14-day quarantine.
Public Safety Canada, the ministry responsible for border security, referred Reuters to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who said visitors to the park “should expect to adhere” to mandatory quarantine orders, and that their Federal Border Integrity Program had “increased enforcement of the area.”
But it remains possible to exit the park from the U.S. side without encountering an official port of entry, at which Canadian border officials would enforce the requirements.
As a result, the park has become the staging ground for the kind of milestone events that are hard if not impossible to arrange as the two nations try to curb the spread of COVID-19 – dates, birthday parties, family gatherings and weddings.
Peace Arch Park saw its visitor numbers more than double to almost 140,000 in 2020, according to the Washington State Park Service (WSPS), which manages the American side of the park. Visitors began streaming in from the very beginning of the border closure, said Amber Forest, area manager for the WSPS.
Weddings soon followed. Roughly seven were held in the park in 2019, according to the WSPS. That number soared in 2020, with five weddings held every weekday and two dozen every weekend for much of the year.
Tents also began appearing, as families gathered for barbecues and long-distance couples pitched shelters for conjugal visits, occasionally piercing expensive irrigation lines with stabilizing pegs.
Access to the park is constantly under threat. Some Canadian politicians have recently renewed calls for their U.S. counterparts to shut off access from the American side, but Washington state has not acted so far.
(Production: Jennifer Gauthier / Kevin Fogarty / Njuwa Maina, Kristin Neubauer)