Reuniting a community separated by COVID
Residents call on officials to create a Stewart-Hyder bubble North of 60 Mining News – September 11, 2020
Last updated 9/26/2020 at 3:26pm
An invisible line that divides a community in the towns of Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder, Alaska has become a lot more tangible with COVID-19 and the international travel restrictions that comes with it. Now, residents of these remote border towns are asking provincial, state, and federal governments to create a figurative bubble that will reunite neighbors now separated by a mandatory 14-day isolation period and other border crossing limitations.
A close-knit community of less than 500 people only distinguished by the United States-Canada border that cuts between two coastal towns, Stewart-Hyder has a symbiotic relationship that dates back to the great gold rushes at the dawn of the 20th century.
"Over 100 years ago, gold miners created these towns – longing for the riches that the mountains here hide. Hearty people moved here, Americans and Canadians alike, looking for adventure and wealth. Those personalities are the founders of Hyder and Stewart, and their resilient spirit lives on within the modern residents," said Jennifer Bunn, a longtime Hyder resident and spokesperson for the Hyder AK and Stewart BC COVID-19 Action Committee.
Mineral exploration in and around the Hyder-Stewart area remains an important source of jobs and revenue.
Over the more than a century that has passed since the founding of these neighboring towns, residents have enjoyed nearly unrestricted access to the amenities in the town just across the border. Canadians are free to cross the border into Hyder without checking in with a U.S. agent, but must report to customs to leave Hyder for other U.S. locales. Heading the other way, Hyder residents only need valid identification to visit friends and family, go shopping or visit the health clinic in Stewart.
"With COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, the 63 residents of Hyder are not permitted to travel into Stewart to carry out daily activities, nor are the 425 Stewarites permitted visits in Hyder," said Bunn. "And to what end and for how long? To mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19?"
Being only accessible by boat or plane and the road that passes through Stewart, Bunn said that if COVID-19 ever did get into Hyder, it would likely come via Canada, especially considering only essential workers and residents are allowed into Hyder from the U.S. side.
Evolving as an interdependent community over the past 100 years, residents from both Stewart and Hyder rely on their neighboring towns for goods and services.
"We are geographically so isolated and remote," said Bunn. "To be separated from our support networks, from access to the amenities of survival, and to face it with no end in sight has worn us down. We are struggling. The arbitrary imposition of the border restrictions here, without consideration for our specific and unique situation, is a correctable problem."
The solution is a "bear bubble," so named for a grizzly bear that has the freedom to cross the border as he chooses and has been adopted as the ambassador of the Hyder-Stewart action committee petitioning for special consideration for the neighboring towns.
This bubble would allow Stewart and Hyder residents to freely cross into neighboring towns for everyday activities such as attending school, collecting mail at the post office, making use of the boat launch in Hyder or the harbor in Stewart, enjoying the backcountry recreation available in the vast tracts of Canada that lay beyond Hyder, attending church services, supporting family members with chores, building maintenance, firewood collection, gardening, and attending small group recreational activities within the constraints of COVID-19 policies.
"We believe that a common sense approach to border traffic here, at this remote border, should include allowance for locals to cross that border more freely, so that we can continue to live as we have for the last 100 years, in quiet cooperation," said Bunn.
This bear bubble idea has the support of officials on the American side of the border and local Canadian officials. The proposal also has the backing of Ascot Resources Ltd., a company looking to re-establish the Premier gold-silver mine on the BC side of the border near Stewart and Hyder, and the Association for Mineral Exploration in BC, both of which recognize the vital interdependency of the two towns.
The bear bubble, however, still needs the approval of Canada Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair.
The Hyder-Stewart action committee is asking Blair to consider four facts:
• Hyder and Stewart are interdependent and tightly integrated.
• The neighboring border towns are geographically remote.
• There are no cases of COVID-19 in the Hyder-Stewart community.
• Hyder has proactively enacted COVID-19 protocols and travel restrictions.
"We are waiting for Minister Blair's office to review our proposal and to immediately enact an exemption from mandatory self-isolation for residents of Hyder and Stewart at the Stewart POE (point of entry)," Bunn said. "We have been suffering divided since March 21 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, held to the same standards as high-risk borders, yet there is no COVID-19 here and the 63 residents of Hyder, some of whom are Canadian citizens, pose little threat of transmitting COVID-19 to Canadians."