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Park used to unite families across the border to close temporarily, B.C. government says
VANCOUVER -- After attendance skyrocketed, the B.C. government says it is temporarily closing a park that straddles the Canada-U.S. border.
Peace Arch Park – near the border crossing with the same name – was built on the international boundary between Canada and the U.S.
While it's heavily patrolled to make sure nobody crosses into the other country, visitors are allowed to explore the entire park on both sides of the border.
So, when provincial parks reopened last month as part of B.C.'s COVID-19 recovery plan, the park was used for reunions between loved ones who were trapped on either side of the border because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Bellingham resident Jeanette Paige met her sister from North Vancouver at the park Thursday.
"This is my one and only sister. My one and only family member in the nearest vicinity. So it’s really hard not to be able to get together,” she told CTV.
The problem, the B.C. government says, is that visits to the park have doubled compared to last year and "parking lots and local access roads have been overwhelmed … resulting in illegal parking" and "an increase in pedestrians along roadways."
So with the park closure looming, numerous cross-border couples scrambled to get married Thursday.
One couple, who had actually planned this day, is grateful they were able to tie the knot.
“I feel very, very lucky,” said newlywed Patrick Southward.
But not everyone was as lucky as him.
Richmond’s Tanya Zboya and her fiancé, Rodrick McDiarmid from Blaine, Wash., had planned to marry at the park Saturday. Now they aren’t sure what they will do.
"You just kind of feel hopeless, like your freedom is being taken away, even more," said Zboya.
Still, they are determined to be husband and wife this weekend somehow.
"Nothing is going to stop us from getting married. No government rule. No virus. Nothing is going to stop us," McDiarmid said.
Shirley Henderson is a marriage commissioner and performed several last-minute weddings, including couples trying to get to the park from out of town.
"One is flying up from Los Angeles to Seattle, driving from Seattle to here. Hoping to be here by 5:30," she explained.
She wishes the park could stay open for small weddings, but understands why the closure might be necessary.
"I’ve been here on the weekend where there’s no parking, the parking lot was packed," she said.
U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders says he was shocked by the B.C. government’s decision to close the park.
"I think it’s heartless…this is the only park on the northern border between Canada and the U.S. where people can meet," he said.
The border's been closed to non-essential travel since mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. While that closure has been extended to at least July 21, new rules came into effect last week allowing immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to enter Canada to be with their family member for a period of at least 15 days.
The visitor must be asymptomatic of COVID-19 and self-isolate for 14 days when they arrive.
When the park reopened on May 14, the province says it implemented some changes like increased signage, more patrols, installing a permanent gate at the park entrance and reducing park hours.
"The measures have not addressed the risk associated with the significant increases in visitors from both sides of the border," a statement from the province says.
As of Thursday at 8 p.m., the park will be temporarily closed. A reopening date wasn't given, but the statement said "the park will reopen when it is deemed safe to do so."
B.C.’s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, says she is aware of the park closure but says it is not being done for COVID-19 reasons.
"There was consultations with the community and there was concern about the numbers of people who were in and around the park and challenges with people, I understand, putting up tents and things like that," she said. "So it was not closed because of COVID-19, it was closed because of concerns around numbers of people and issues in the community."