Northern exposure

How Sandpoint’s sister city, Nelson, B.C., is weathering the COVID-19 pandemic

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

In years past, Bonner County businesses could expect a healthy infusion of Canadian cash during the high summer months. But, since the U.S.-Canada border closed to all but essential travel March 21 — an order that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced will continue until at least Aug. 21 — license plates from British Columbia and Alberta have been notably absent on area roads.

Likewise, in Nelson, B.C., local businesses have seen a dearth of Idaho, Montana and Washington plates as their summer trade with U.S. travelers has dried up amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

A fishing boat moored outside of Nelson, B.C.
Photo by Ben Olson.

“It has affected businesses, seriously, economically,” said Val Yowek, who manages the Nelson Visitor Center, operated by the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce. “Right now we’re seeing people and it’s a different type of people — there’s no Americans, no Europeans.”

As in Sandpoint, most of the tourists flowing into Nelson are coming from nearby areas — mostly within the provinces of B.C. and neighboring Alberta. 

“It’s busy. Our campgrounds are full. But it’s lots of B.C. travel,” Yowek added.

Nelson is a picturesque resort town of about 10,000 people, located three hours north of Sandpoint on the west arm of Kootenay Lake. Sandpoint and Nelson have since 2013 been designated “sister cities,” sharing many similarities, including a robust tourism industry, plentiful outdoor recreation and lake access, a historic downtown and small-town feel.

Yet the two communities’ experiences with COVID-19 have differed in some ways.

“In Nelson, things are pretty quiet and, if there are cases here, there are few and we don’t know about them,” said Bill Metcalfe, a reporter with the Nelson Star newspaper who covers the city council beat and, along with his colleagues, has kept a steady eye on the COVID-19 situation.

According to tracking by the Provincial Health Services Authority and B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the entire province — with a population of just more than 5 million people — has logged only about 3,300 cases of COVID-19 since February, based on more than 238,000 tests. In the meantime, more than 2,800 of those cases have recovered and 189 have resulted in death. 

Interior Health, which operates as the lead health agency for a huge area comprising all but the western edge of southern B.C., logged 45 cases from July 17 to July 20, bringing the regional total to 280 since tracking began in the spring. As of July 21, that number had risen to 291 — an increase attributed in large part to a recent outbreak in Kelowna, about four hours northwest of Nelson.

Both Metcalfe and Yowek said the Nelson community, as well as the rest of B.C., is closely watching the so-called “Kelowna cluster,” concerned that localized upswings in cases may turn into “a second wave of COVID coming back,” Yowek said. 

“We’re in Phase 3, where they’ve opened up more businesses and there’s less restrictions, but our chief health official is saying, ‘Watch it,’” she added.

Those numbers sound small south of the border. Idaho, with a statewide population about one-fifth that of B.C. has counted nearly 16,000 cases of the virus since mid-March and 135 deaths. Bonner County, meanwhile, with a population of about 40,000, has confirmed more than 100 cases — a far higher infection rate by percentage of population than the 291 recorded in the Interior Health Region, which includes dozens of communities ranging from tiny villages to cities like Kelowna, with a metro area of more than 217,000 people; Kamloops, with a population of about 100,000; and Penticton and Cranbrook, with about 33,000 and 21,000 residents, respectively.

“In Canada, B.C. is considered a success story, in terms of flattening the curve early and keeping it that way,” Metcalfe said. “This relative success is considered to be a result of strong testing and reporting, and to the communication style of the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.”

Still, British Columbians continue to adhere closely to public health measures such as frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings — though the latter only sporadically in Nelson, according to Metcalfe, who added that “there’s a lot of Canadians who think the border ought to be even more closed than it is already.”

Echoing that abundance of caution, Yeowk said, “Everyone’s so happy that we’re going [economically], but we need to be responsible.” 

Case numbers haven’t been reported on a community-by-community basis, which Yeowk added has been good — in a way.

“I’m glad I don’t know [the number of local cases in Nelson], because I think I would probably loosen my practices if I did know; also we want visitors, but we don’t want everybody to come here because of our low numbers,” she added. “There’s such a fine line.”

Metcalfe said the non-local reporting system “was controversial from the start,” but “the rationale being that you have to behave as though the people around you and you yourself are infected.” 

In the U.S., that kind of broad-based, stringent response has spurred vigorous — sometimes violent — reactions, particularly when it comes to mandatory protocols related to mask-wearing. COVID-19 restrictions have prompted protests around the country, including in Sandpoint.

“There’s nothing like that here,” Metcalfe said. “That would be unheard of.”

Nonetheless, he added, there has been some pushback in Nelson regarding various COVID-19 restrictions, but “there’s no comparison [with the U.S.] as far as I can see.”

“There’s no culture war here. There are people who disagree; there are people who think the whole thing is a hoax and wearing masks will poison you,” Metcalfe said. “Excluding the conspiracy theories — which there are some — there are ones who say that this is an overreaction. But I just don’t think it’s hugely strong. … The social media part of it is not as strident here as it is there.”

According to a recent health ministry survey of nearly 400,000 people, four out of five B.C. residents said they approved of the province’s response to COVID-19.

Rather than stage protests, duke it out on social media or fill city council chambers with angry testimony, people in Nelson have focused on supporting their local businesses as best they can. 

“Initially when the pandemic was announced, everything shut down; it was a ghost town. For a few weeks it was eerie,” Yowek said. 

Then the city government and local economic development group created and distributed large posters that read, “Open for Business” and featured a blank space where merchants could write in their patron capacity or how to otherwise secure their services. Businesses hung the posters in their windows and it was “super effective,” Yowek said. “It created something like, ‘There’s something going on,’ at the time.”

Since then, the city of Nelson has waived fees for outdoor patios, granted extensions on city taxes and utility payments, and funneled some parking revenue back to local businesses. Meanwhile, federal programs have provided wage and rent subsidies — perhaps continuing through December — grants for students who can’t find work and instituted rent freezes while limiting conditions for evictions.

“It seemed that when COVID came out there was something new every week,” Yowek said, though, “the debt that’s being incurred because of these programs, it’s just incredible. I’m glad there’s support, but wow.”

Characterizing the local response as “wait-and-see and behave ourselves,” Yowek emphasized the importance of direct customer support for Main Street businesses.

“We’re trying to make it work. Like Sandpoint, that’s the charm. We’re not strip malls, we have these beautiful downtowns,” she said. “The message that’s being conveyed locally is for us to really try and support our local business; shop local and keep them going.”

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