Virus versus visitors: San Juan residents weigh health risks of tourism amid pandemic

The empty — for now — upper car deck of the MV Samish reflects the drop in visitor traffic to and from the San Juan Islands resulting from the state’s “stay-at-home” directive to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Every day, the Samish and other Washington State Ferries vessels connect island residents with jobs, families and services, as part of the state highway system. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Hayley Day

— On a typical March day, Jim Passer might serve up to 250 customers at his Orcas Island restaurant, The Lower Tavern. Yet, since Washington state started restricting gatherings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, Passer is lucky to serve 100 customers to-go orders a day.

“Every single hour of every day we talk about whether or not we’re doing the right thing,” said Passer about remaining open. “It’s a serious situation we’re in, so the closure and everything we’re doing are certainly necessary.”

Since the state shut down seating in bars and restaurants, Passer’s 16 employees have dwindled to two. Just he and his manager have been running the business, where the kitchen closes about three hours earlier than usual. Passer hasn’t added up how much he’s lost in sales, though he estimates it’ll be “significant” — and that’s even before the peak season.

In the San Juan Islands, locals bank on a bustling tourism economy to generate business and provide wages, particularly during the sunny summer months. But with a growing pandemic, islanders, like others in small vacation destinations, are realizing fewer visitors might mean healthier locals.

As COVID-19 spreads from person to person across the globe, San Juan County officials are joining others — from Hawaii to Martha’s Vineyard — in asking, or even ordering, tourists to stay away from their coveted travel destinations to slow the pandemic and protect limited resources such as food and health care services. Those in top vacation spots are weighing whether a hit to the local economy might be a win for residents’ safety.

‘Stay home, stay safe’

New restrictions on gatherings have been imposed at local and state levels throughout March.

On March 25, “non-essential” travel to the islands by private and commercial vessels and aircrafts was restricted until May. That includes traveling from the mainland as well among the San Juans. Short-term lodgings, such as hotels and Airbnbs, are also closed. Camping is not allowed at county parks or under the wings of planes or elsewhere at airports.

“Essential” travel is defined by the state. On March 23, Governor Jay Inslee ordered Washingtonians to stay home for at least two weeks. That rule expanded on a previous state order to close restaurants and other entertainment venues to prevent people from congregating. People may go outside to bike, garden or walk their dog, but must maintain a distance of at least 6 feet away from others to avoid getting sick.

The governor’s March 23 stay-at-home order reiterates an earlier directive that grocery stores and pharmacies may open, but not salons, gyms, theaters, museums or events such as festivals. Restaurants can still offer to-go orders, but no seating is allowed. As of March 25, state parks are closed for two weeks.

The restrictive orders are seen as necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19: there is as yet no medicine to cure or treat this new virus strain. As of March 26, there had been 147 deaths from COVID-19 in Washington state and 3,207 people infected. Of those, two people on Orcas Island and one on Lopez Island had tested positive, but there had been no coronavirus deaths in San Juan County. 

Not flocking in

Typically, people flock to the San Juan Islands by ferry or plane to enjoy the area’s pristine natural settings, including visiting the almost 32,000 acres of public lands or watching the Salish Sea’s famous southern resident orcas. Up to a million visitors trekked to the islands last year, fueling local businesses like restaurants, hotels and kayak and whale watching tours.

Per U.S. Census data, an estimated 36 percent of the islands’ houses are vacation homes. The leisure and hospitality industry employs the most people on the islands, and by August of each year seasonal jobs increase employment by about 36 percent. In 2018 alone, tourism brought $251 million to the islands.

Island revenue started to drop on March 17, after Inslee used emergency powers to shut down restaurants, bars and entertainment and recreational facilities throughout the state for two weeks and banned gatherings of 50 or more. This came days after public and private K-12 schools were closed until April 24 and restrictions were placed on higher education facilities.

Rules about staying home may be working. Washington State Ferries staff report that travel to and from the San Juans has dropped by around 19,400 riders — approximately 22% — in the first 22 days of March compared to the same period last year. Due to low ridership, the winter sailing schedule, which offers fewer sailing options than the spring schedule, has been extended an additional month, through April 25.

Cancellations to reduce risk

The trend to fewer visitors could extend into the upcoming months across the islands. Annual local events, like a long-running bicycle tour on Lopez Island and a newer literature festival on Orcas Island, have been canceled.

For 16 years, as many as 900 cyclists have pedaled alongside Lopez’s rolling pastures for a 5- to 31-mile bike ride every April during the Tour de Lopez. The ride ends with entertainment and a catered lunch at an island park with another roughly 100 guests. Typically, the event nets about $17,000 to maintain a local park’s showers and restrooms for the year.

This March, organizers including Christa Campbell, executive director of Lopez Island’s Chamber of Commerce, weighed the pros and cons of inviting crowds to the island, even before the state’s ban on gatherings of 50 or more.

Canceling the event “will have a negative effect on our accommodations [workers], our caterers, musicians and other services that come into play for the tour,” she said. “[But] it will have a positive effect in that it will reduce the risk exposure to our community by not bringing 800-plus people here from off island.”

The ride might be rescheduled for this October, or the event might remain called off as refunds begin to be handed out. 

Scott Hutchins, co-founder of the Orcas Island Lit Fest, said the event, which has brought authors and attendees to the island for the last two springs, has incurred unrecoverable expenses, but will persevere. The festival is canceled for this year, and tickets are being refunded or donated to the nonprofit.

San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Barbara Marrett said promoting tourism on the islands during a pandemic isn’t safe. She said she had heard that 18 events had been canceled, as of March 20.

Staff at the San Juans’ dedicated marketing firm have even pulled TV and online ads to prevent the organization’s main purpose: bringing tourists to the islands. To support local businesses during the downturn, staff plan to sell local gift certificates and products online, hopefully, enticing buyers’ next island visits.

 “To advertise for visitors … puts locals [in] jeopardy by increasing the chances of virus exposure,” she said. “The islands have an above-average risk of fatalities from the virus due to a large population of adults over 60 years old. We have very limited health facilities. Any [major] emergency medical issues must be treated off island.”

Strain on health resources

The San Juan Islands are not only a popular tourist destination, but a retirement hot spot. About 34 percent of residents are 65 or older — almost double the statewide average — and are among the most susceptible to contract and die from the coronavirus. 

Visitors to the rural islands, said San Juan County’s Emergency Management Manager Brendan Cowan, would easily strain the local medical system if the pandemic spreads. 

“We want to remind everybody, whether they are visiting or whether they are coming to a second home …, we have an extremely fragile medical system here,” he said during a taped county update about the virus on March 19. “[In] limiting the people on the island, not only are we worried about the spread of the illness but limiting the drain on our resources is really critical.”

Testing for the virus in the islands, like in most areas, is limited due to the national and statewide short supply of test kits, said San Juan County Community Health Manager Ellen Wilcox during the March 19 update. Testing is limited to high-priority cases, like those with severe symptoms, as well as health care workers and first responders who communities rely on to care for the sick.

The hospital on the most populated island, San Juan, provides what are only considered to be essential services. PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center has 10 beds. Staff provide 24-hour emergency care, but cannot keep patients hospitalized past 96 hours. 

Wilcox said extreme cases are transported to a mainland hospital by air or ambulance, raising concerns about whether a Seattle hospital would always be able to accept a San Juan County transport, versus a local in need. 

Staying home, said Wilcox, is the safest option for San Juan residents and visitors alike.

“We do have a medical system, … by design, here on the islands, where it’s not equipped to handle a high level of medical need,” she said. “This is a wonderful place, this is a beautiful place; there are a lot of people who are saying, ‘well, I’m working remotely, my kids are out for six-eight weeks, so might as well go up to San Juan County and stay up there.’ It’s a nice idea, but it can really strain our already fragile [medical] system.”













Hayley Day has been a community journalist for over a decade. Most recently she was a reporter at The Journal of the San Juan Islands. She has written about culture and entertainment for Cincinnati, Ohio, publications including the city’s only daily newspaper and its largest alternative weekly. Read more of her work at www.HayleyDay.com.