Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Jack Knox: Relaxed rules or not, it's still a testing time for cross-border travel

The question is, will Monday’s change be enough to make a real difference, or will travellers still balk?

PORT ANGELES — For the record, the mushroom ravioli at Bella Italia is still to die for.

They don’t dish up as much as they did at the height of the Twilight craze, when tweenaged girls and their mothers descended on Port Angeles by the busload, eager to eat the same meal at the real-life restaurant as the make-believe heroine of the vampire novels did.

Bella Italia served 5,000 orders of mushroom ravioli during the 2009 tourist season — close to 40 a night in a restaurant that seated 58, tops. The poor chef felt like he was in a remake of Groundhog Day.

No busloads of diners during the pandemic, though. And no Canadians, at least not before the Coho ferry, idled for 20 months, resumed shuttling between Victoria and Port Angeles in November.

The cross-border flow didn’t return to normal, though, as expensive and cumbersome Canadian COVID-testing requirements kept short-­duration travel to a trickle from B.C. to the Atlantic.

It goes like this: The Americans require Canadians entering the U.S. to be fully vaccinated, but only require them to pass a COVID test if travelling by air. Canada, on the other hand, demands that Canadians and non-Canadians alike show proof of a negative test when they come north. 

On Monday, Canada eased up a bit, allowing travellers to use rapid-antigen tests in place of molecular versions such as PCR tests. Not only are the rapid tests cheaper, but the turn-around time is faster, with results usually coming within an hour, not a couple of days. There’s even an online option in which you self-administer a test under the supervision of a nurse.

That’s all a big deal not only for Victoria’s tourism sector, but for Islanders driving to Seattle for Mariners games or flying off for a What Happens in Vegas Stays on the Internet long weekend.

It’s also important 30 kilometres across the strait in Port Angeles, where residents have long been used to popping over on the Coho for everything from shopping to dentistry.

The question is, will Monday’s change be enough to make a real difference, or will travellers still balk?

Tourist-dependent communities on both sides of the border grumble that the tests are still an impediment, bureaucracy in the guise of safety, and that short-term travel won’t happen until they’re gone.

Ottawa replies that the pandemic demands continued border vigilance. Some Canadians would be happy to seal the borders altogether.

Monday’s change reflects a wider relaxation. As COVID numbers improve, the northern Olympic Peninsula is on track to lose its vaccine mandate for bars and restaurants by March 11. Washington state plans to lift its mask mandate for restaurants, bars, schools, grocery stores and other indoor places on March 21.

Port Angeles is coming back to life. The jazz festival, silenced last year, will return April 22-23. After a two-year absence, the maritime festival will be back in June. Ditto for the North Olympic Discovery Marathon. The annual Ride the Hurricane ascent to Hurricane Ridge continued during the pandemic, but without the 200 Canadian cyclists who usually pile off the Coho for the arduous climb.

“We love our Canadian neighbours,” said Leslie Robertson, events manager at the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We missed them so much.”

But will Canadians return with testing requirements in place, and will Washington residents make the crossing the other way? And even if they’re willing, will there be enough capacity to process the tests during tourist season?

“There’s this huge pent-up demand to go see Victoria again,” said Port Angeles resident Kris Grier, perched on a stool in the Great Northern Coffee Bar. That said, the idea of arranging and paying for a COVID test dampens his enthusiasm.

He’s deterred not just by the cost of a rapid test, which can range from free under some circumstances to $99 at a local pharmacy, but by the hassle of booking a test and getting the result back within the prescribed window — antigen tests must be taken in the U.S. within 24 hours of going to Canada, PCR tests within 72.

By contrast, Grier’s friend Jase Brown, a recent arrival from Texas who is anxious to see Victoria but had been put off by the high cost of a PCR test, said Monday’s shift was a game-changer. “We’re going to go, either in March or April.”

Many in Port Angeles feel a connection to Victoria, which is a lot closer than Seattle. Everybody listens to Victoria radio.

With the Coho back, Port Book and News has resumed selling the Times Colonist to a loyal group of readers who insist on holding the print edition. Janet Lucas, who works as a server at Bella Italia when not teaching at Peninsula College, said that when CHEK News broadcast from Port Angeles, her kids were excited to meet Ed Bain.

Lucas said she has missed Victoria. She takes architecture tours, likes Beacon Hill Park, loves the Royal B.C. Museum, takes the city bus to Butchart Gardens and can’t wait to eat at Il Terrazzo again. (“Boy, is that good.”)

But she also hears people talk about COVID tests as a barrier.

Down the block at the bookstore, Cindy Turner also mentions test costs, though she is eager to make the crossing. “There are a lot of people here champing at the bit to get over there.”

She and husband Alan Turner can all but taste the barbecue they have been craving from Chinatown’s Wah Lai Yuen restaurant.

Alan talks of poking down Fan Tan Alley, the museum and the architecture that helps give Victoria a character not found in the U.S. “It feels different from virtually any American city I’ve been in,” he said.

The same holds true for ­Canadians ducking over to Port Angeles, which feels familiar and foreign at the same time. From the ambience in the bars to the architecture, you know you’re in the U.S.

On Lincoln Street is an old courthouse straight out of Back to the Future. Just down the hill is a war memorial that includes the names of nine local boys who died in Vietnam. Safeway sells liquor. The Democrats have Ukrainian flags in the display window of their downtown office, while the Republicans have life-sized cut-outs of Donald and Melania Trump.

It’s a friendly town of 19,000 with great hiking and biking trails, a walkable downtown and the Olympics towering as a backdrop.

The Coho did see a bump in traffic Monday, with bookings up Tuesday, too. But there’s still worry about the tests keeping day-trippers and other short-term travellers at home.

Even those travelling here for longer can be put off. Coming to Vancouver Island from Washington state last week, fiancés Cyndy Hansen and Marty Carskadon had some anxious moments thanks to the PCR test.

They had their ferry reservations, had booked their hotels and had friends who had travelled from Quebec waiting for them in Victoria, but all was dependent on getting negative tests back in time.

The results arrived by email, but when Cyndy checked her phone, they didn’t show the time stamp that would prove her test had been taken within the 72-hour window. “I was panicked. I couldn’t even think.”

The couple made it into Canada and had a great visit, but that testing requirement was a hurdle. “We understand it’s to contain the virus, but it’s a lot of work getting up here,” said Carskadon as they headed back to Port Angeles on the Coho.

[email protected]

Note to readers: This column has be updated to clarify that the U.S. requires Canadians arriving by air to have a negative COVID test in order to enter the country.