Eli Bell, from White Salmon, Wash., and Brooklyn Schulz, from Abbotsford, reconnect in Peace Arch Park on Sunday. (Aaron Hinks photo)

Love flourishes at Peace Arch Park, but COVID-19 concerns loom

South Surrey park becomes only place for international couples to meet

Love flourishes at Peace Arch Park, but not everyone has the butterflies.

The park, which is located in an international zone between the U.S. and Canadian border in South Surrey, is the only place in the province where Americans and Canadians can connect without crossing a port of entry.

The border between Canada and the U.S. has been closed to all non-essential travel since mid-March. Last month, the closure was extended until at least June 21. The provincial government reopened Peace Arch Park for day use on March 14.

RELATED: Canada-U.S. border to stay closed to non-essential travel until June 21

Brooklyn Schulz, from Abbotsford, and Eli Bell, from White Salmon, Wash., had a picnic under a tree in the park Sunday morning.

Sitting under a quilt, it was the first time the couple got to see each other in more than five months.

The COVID-19 pandemic and border closure has created a number of challenges for the young couple, but they described being elated they could finally meet.

In fact, the Sunday picnic was one of the first dates of their very new relationship.

“I asked her to date on Friday. We were getting to know each other, and I wanted to ask her in person. I didn’t want to ask over FaceTime,” Bell said.

The couple said they have been relying on FaceTime, phone calls and other messaging apps to stay connected. While waiting for the border to reopen, they have been interacting through a number of online games such as Battleship, Uno and Cribbage.

Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is mulling over the idea of allowing U.S. border-closure exceptions for families split between the neighbouring countries.

During a news conference, Trudeau told reporters that his government has received reports about families separated by the ongoing border closures to all but essential travel, specifically those with partners or children stuck in the U.S. because of work.

“We have been looking at ways of perhaps allowing close family members, children, spouses, or parents of Canadian citizens or permanent residents to be able to reunite under strict conditions through a slight modification of the directives for the Canadian Border Services Agency,” Trudeau said.

There was about four tents pitched throughout the park Sunday morning and a group of about 12 people gathered with lawn chairs, tents, coolers and other supplies.

RELATED: Influx of cross-border visitors to Peace Arch Park sparks concern COVID-19 could spike

Recently, large gatherings in Peace Arch Park has been a point of concern for some local officials. However, the number of park goers Sunday pales in comparison to what was reported on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend.

RCMP Cpl. Daniel Michaud, media relations for federal enforcement, said there were “hundreds” of people in the park over the Memorial Day weekend, which was a surprise.

“The influx… we didn’t really see that coming,” Michaud told PAN.

Semiahmoo First Nation Coun. Joanne Charles raised concerns with government and health authorities last week, after visitors from both sides of the border jumped at the opportunity the park reopening presented to reconnect with friends and family – with the majority foregoing federal and provincial social-distancing and self-isolation guidelines.

“We have American families or American individuals coming up here to visit with Canadians and not abiding by the federal quarantine order by quarantining when they come to Canada.

“Unfortunately, that could come with a number of serious health risks for each of them and/or whoever they’re working with.

“But, they’re in an international park. I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to say it’s a grey area.”

Michaud agreed the park – 17 hectares situated between the two ports of entry – is “no man’s land.” As long as visitors stay within its boundaries, they can move freely between the two countries.

“But there’s still this restriction of crossing borders and it becomes important for the spread (of COVID-19),” Michaud said. “We don’t want this to be an area where the pandemic can start picking up,” he said.

– with files from Tracy Holmes

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Officials have taken issue of large gatherings at Peace Arch Park. (Aaron Hinks photo)

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