Community Voices: Business as usual not happening soon, per Whatcom’s Satpal Sidhu

It is not business as usual, at least for now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; above, signs advertise the shift to take-out-only service and curbside pick up at a restaurant in Bellingham’s Lakeway Shopping center — one of many restaurants attempting to keep serving customers while following social distancing rules. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Kimberly Cauvel

— Family dairies, the annual Ski to Sea race and visitor and shopper traffic from Canada are just a few archetypal activities being disrupted in Whatcom County as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. Business as usual is not due back in Whatcom County any time soon, said county executive Satpal Sidhu in an April 10 interview with Kimberly Cauvel for the Salish Current

Whatcom County Executive
Satpal Sidhu

Sidhu encouraged residents to continue to “pay attention and follow the guidance” of state, county and local health officials in the meantime.

SC: How has COVID-19 impacted Whatcom County in the first month of its presence?

Sidhu: I don’t think that anyone in our community is left unaffected. COVID-19 has been very tough on everyone — our kids, our workers, our senior citizens. Tens of thousands of Whatcom County residents are experiencing a significant personal or financial impact as a result of our social distancing measures which are aimed at preventing hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. Even as we are saving lives through these social distancing measures, our community is also grieving loved ones lost to this disease. This is a very difficult time, but I am confident that our community will get through this together and emerge stronger. 

SC: How quickly did we see a local economic impact?

Sidhu: The timing and scale of the impact has varied. For instance, for dairies, the price of milk started to decline in February, as global markets reacted to the pandemic. Our family farms are really feeling the squeeze, because many of them were counting on higher prices in 2020.

The community-wide impact came hard and fast in mid-March with the closure of restaurants and cafes, the closure of the border to nonessential travel, school closures and then the state’s “stay home, stay healthy” order.

Over the past three weeks (through April 4) nearly 17,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits in Whatcom County. That represents about 15% of the workforce. These numbers will rise with the extension of the “stay home” order.

SC: If after the first week of May, restaurants and businesses can reopen, how quickly could the local economy bounce back?

Sidhu: Our leaders at the federal, state and local level recognize that public health is the key to returning to economic health. We also know that the easing of social distancing measures will not take place overnight. These measures will slowly be dialed back as we carefully monitor the public health situation. This means that the return to economic health will also be gradual — not quick. A lot of attention is being paid to efforts to keep businesses viable through this downturn. It’s important that they are able to keep their employees or, at least, be in a position to rehire them once social distancing measures are relaxed. 

SC: Is there data available on how cross-border traffic has decreased?

Sidhu: Generally speaking, commercial traffic is at about 80% of the pre-crisis levels while passenger vehicle traffic is only at 2% of previous levels.

SC: Where do you see the county in terms of returning to business as usual in three months, by July? 

Sidhu: We are not going to get back to business as usual any time soon, and we need to acknowledge this. My hope is that we continue to respond flexibly and prudently to this very dynamic situation. Right now, our cities are re-examining their summer plans for parades and festivals. These events are a very integral part of the fabric of our community, and it’s heartbreaking to think about having to cancel them. Our annual Ski to Sea race, for instance, will not be held for the first time in 46 years. We will be following the advice of our public health experts when it comes to making these decisions.

SC: Do you anticipate any permanent changes as a result of this pandemic, such as moves to digital services, lost businesses, or lessons for county emergency response?

Sidhu: We are all struggling to adapt to the changes that have been forced upon us by this pandemic. What makes me optimistic is the fact that negative disruption can bring about positive change.

There is an interesting study about the London subway (Tube) strikes of 2014. Commuters were forced to experiment for a couple of days and rethink their route to work. It turns out that a significant number of commuters found a better way to get to work and didn’t return to their previous route after the strike ended.

It’s probably early to be talking about any silver linings, but it’s my hope that we will all find better ways of doing things in our personal and professional lives. Until that day, county government will continue to work hard for our citizens and we ask everyone to please pay attention and follow the guidance from local and state health agencies towards that goal of being able to return to normal life sooner.

— Q&A edited for clarity and length. 

The numbers

Washington state’s first COVID-19 case was lab-confirmed on Jan. 21, and the state’s first related death occurred on Feb. 24, according to data from the Department of Health.

Whatcom and Skagit counties each reported first cases on March 10, and San Juan County on March 20. (See more about local response in ‘Virus versus visitors: San Juan residents weigh health risks of tourism’ in the Salish Current.)

As of April 10, DoH data showed:

Confirmed casesDeaths
San Juan120
Skagit1735
Whatcom25023
Washington State9,608446

Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.