Phase 3 offers more relief while restaurant owners await border reopening

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As Washington enters Phase 3 of governor Jay Inslee’s “Roadmap to Recovery” plan to safely reopen the economy, restaurant owners are hopeful that easing restrictions could lead to a busier future for Blaine businesses.

For Miguel Ramos, owner of Paso del Norte, the past year has been filled with challenges and tough decisions. Before the pandemic, Ramos had 23 employees on staff. Today he can nearly count his staff on two hands.

“Right now,” Ramos says as he counts his fingers, “Twelve. So I lost eleven.”

He said that even with the added help of alcohol to-go sales and online ordering, the restaurant is still not operating at its pre-Covid clip.

“It’s one of the hardest things to let go of an employee,” Ramos said. “We lost some very good employees because I couldn’t keep them on payroll.”

Ramos says he’s used his personal savings and took out multiple paycheck protection loans to stay in business. Since the state entered Phase 3 of the reopening plan on March 22, Ramos said he has seen a slow but steady uptick in business.

“The last two weeks we’ve been  up about 15 percent on sales,” Ramos said.

While the switch to Phase 3 is seen by restaurant owners as a sign of hope for a safe and prosperous future, “back to normal” may rely on more than just Washington being open for business.

“I don’t think it’s really possible to go completely back to normal without seeing the Canadian customers come down,” said Kylie Bestul, co-owner of the Peace Arch City Café.

Before the border was closed on March 21, 2020 in a mutual agreement between the Canadian and American federal governments, Bestul said Canadian travelers accounted for 35 to 40 percent of her customer base.

Ramos said that during lunch hours, Canadians account for about 60 percent of his business.

“Closing the border, it was like day and night,” Ramos said. “The first day they shut the border, we got like five customers by lunchtime.”

On March 18, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced the 12th extension of the closure, this time until at least April 21.

Neither government has offered a timeline for reopening the border.

Both Bestul and Ramos said that having a schedule to estimate when the border might be open again would be invaluable for revamping their businesses to pre-Covid levels. 

But after 12 extensions of the border closure, Peace Arch City Café isn’t holding its breath.

“We’ve tried to not have any sort of expectation as to when the border’s going to reopen,” Bestul said. “We haven’t rehired people calculating that it would be reopened by the summer.”

Despite the financial woes that local business owners have been facing, one thing that has kept both Ramos and Bestul hopeful throughout this year has been the love and support shown by the local community.

Ramos said during the slowest months of the pandemic, regulars would buy gift cards, send direct checks or even deliver homemade food to the restaurant.

“I want to cry just thinking about it,” Ramos said. “Those little things make big memories, but that’s what Blaine is like, you feel that local support.”

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