Coronavirus hits Washington tourism sector

Coronavirus hits Washington tourism sector

Telling people to stay away is not an appealing prospect for most business organizations and governments that depend on tourist dollars to survive.

But that is exactly what communities from the San Juan Islands off the state’s northwest coast to the city of Leavenworth in central Washington are doing in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The message comes despite fears over what the decreased tourism will do to local businesses.

“It’s hurting everyone,” San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Barbara Marrett said. “The longer this lasts, the greater the chances that people won’t be able to weather the storm.”

Nevertheless, Marrett said the bureau’s top concern is the community’s older population in an area with limited medical facilities. Although there is currently only one confirmed case in the county, she said “that is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t want them (visitors) to bring it here. It seems counterintuitive for the visitor’s bureau and the whole community – who is very tourism oriented – t o be asking people to postpone their trips,” but her hope is that this approach will end the crisis sooner and allow businesses to open again.

It’s the same argument Leavenworth Mayor Carl Florea makes in his March 23 proclamation asking residents to “shelter in place” and all non-essential businesses to close. Governor Jay Inslee also announced a similar order the same day that will remain in effect until April 6, stating: “the less time we spend in public, the more lives we will save.” A week prior, Inslee issued a March 16 executive order closing all restaurants, bars, hotel gyms, food courts and coffee shops until March 31.

Florea told Lens that his decision was made in part by the number of visitors in town over the weekend and based on recommendations from health professionals that residents stay home.

“It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it wasn’t something I signed up for as a mayor,” he said. “But at the same time…everyone says we should be staying in place. We should not be congregating in public places. If we’re going to get through this more quickly, it means maybe more pain in the short term in order to get going more quickly with fewer deaths. That’s the hope in doing this.”

For communities like Leavenworth, the situation bears some similarities to the 1994 wildfire season in which business in the town more or less ceased, and the National Guard was brought in to suppress the fire and occupied the town. Yet, Florea said “this is unprecedented. Everybody is calling it a once in 100-year kind of outbreak.”

Despite the safety precautions and late fee or penalty waivers by local utilities for businesses, both Florea and Marrett say they’re worried about the ramifications this will have. Marrett said that hotels have already had reservations cancelled and local campsites are closed. However, she noted that summer and fall are their busiest months, “so if we do a good job of flattening the curve, hopefully our summer will be ok. But it all depends on whether people do their jobs and stay home.”

In Leavenworth, Florea said “this is going to be far worse in terms of the long-range and ongoing (effects)” compared to wildfire seasons, though the actual hit to city revenue won’t be known for a while. The situation could get worse if the crisis drags on further.

“It’s such a wild card,” Florea said. “None of us have that crystal ball.”

Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) Public Affairs Senior Vice President David Blandford noted that the shutdown has involved all aspects of the tourism industry from “hotels to transportation to restaurants, everyone is affected. It’s not discriminating.”

He added the alliance is currently reaching out to members via survey to determine the actual effects. “It’s taking some time just to get the information…because everyone is all-hands-on-deck.”

At the same time, he said that if the shutdown lingers the consequences could be severe for small businesses that compose 80 percent of the state tourism industry. “How do you sustain the negative impacts of crisis like that for months and months?”

WTA is exploring possible mitigation options for members, including emergency funding from the legislature. A priority will be to convey to state lawmakers how the virus outbreak has harmed their bottom line, Blandford said. They’re also seeking possible federal money via a stimulus package under consideration by Congress.

“I think from our standpoint, money can come from many different places,” he said. “We need to make sure that they are powering up to drive that economic recovery (in their communities). If they don’t, who brings back visitors? You have to ensure the drivers of business if you want that economic recovery to last.”

The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau currently maintains a Travel Advisory that includes links to the county’s COVID-19 webpage and Facebook page. The Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce has a list of open businesses and its new hours. The WTA’s business resource page can be found here. The city of Leavenworth posts updates on the virus here.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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