How Coutts, Alta., is getting by one month after COVID-19 border restrictions

One of Alberta’s southernmost communities has been hit hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 border restrictions over the past month.

On March 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the closure of the Canada-United States border to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Trudeau confirmed on Saturday that the restrictions will be extended for at least another 30 days.

Now, businesses within Coutts, Alta., have either closed or struggled to stay open.

The Altan Duty-Free Store, a popular last stop before heading south, closed its doors almost immediately after the restrictions were put in place, despite hopes of keeping up services for truckers.

“I think we’d like to be open for the truckers,” said staff supervisor Yvonne Graham on March 18.

“They stop and grab a coffee and grab their manifests from here because we have fax services for them.”

Keith Dangerfield, who owns Hills of Home Café in Coutts, said they have been able to keep up delivery service because they don’t have any mortgage bills on their property to worry about, but he’s concerned for the rest of the community, including Duty-Free.

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“They won’t have any problem coming back, but it’s not going to be business as usual when it does come back,” said Dangerfield.

“We hope everyone will come through it fine but we’re not so sure that will happen.” 

When asked about changes in volumes of travellers, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) could not give Global News specific statistics on the Coutts-Sweetgrass port of entry but provided a statement regarding national statistics, that reads in part:

“During the week of April 6 to April 12, 2020, despite Canadians continuing to return home, volumes were down more than 89 per cent for those crossing via land and more than 97 per cent at airports compared to the same time a year ago. Traveller volumes continue to fall as border measures are strengthened.

“The numbers also show a 37 per cent decrease in truck drivers entering Canada compared to the same time last year. It must be noted that no measures have been introduced restricting commercial shipments or rendering certain products as non-essential, nor is there any indication of issues with supply chains for essential goods coming to Canada, including food and medical supplies.”

Sweetgrass, Mont., is located directly across the border, separated only by chain-link fencing.

The U.S. town is part of Toole County, which confirmed on Thursday the presence of 26 cases and four deaths due to COVID-19.

Coutts Mayor Jim Willett admitted a large portion of the town’s 245 residents are older in age, so they may be more wary of cross-border shopping and interactions in the future.

“A couple of our older citizens were related to one of the ladies that passed away on the other side so it’s very real,” said Willett.

Willett said he is concerned about the businesses within Coutts but believes a more pressing concern is keeping the virus out of Warner County.

“While we trust truckers coming across the border to report their symptoms, there is no real screening other than just asking them questions,” he said.

For the past three weeks, Willet has been participating in town hall teleconferences with the province of Alberta to ask about any further testing procedures that may be put in place to help protect communities that drivers may pass through.

He said he plans to do so again on Monday.

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