Valley sentiment discourages tourism
Last Sunday (March 22) Methow Valley resident Patrick Hannigan launched an online petition called “Close the Methow,” calling for local elected officials to discourage tourism during the coronavirus pandemic, and consider closing the Methow Valley to non-residents.
The petition stated that many Methow Valley residents “are rightly concerned about the influx of non-residents in the past weeks who appear to view the valley as a quarantine vacation destination.” Posted on Change.com, the petition asked officials of Twisp and Winthrop to stop marketing efforts that encourage tourism, and instead urge people not to come to the Methow Valley, including second-home owners.
On Monday (March 23), one day after Hannigan started the petition, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all Washington residents to stay at home, essentially accomplishing what Hannigan’s petition sought.
“One day after I posted this petition, it’s already irrelevant. Gov. Inslee ordered all of us to stay at home, effectively shutting down tourism in Washington State,” Hannigan said Tuesday (March 24).
“I don’t pretend the petition had anything to do with these developments — that’s just how fast this crisis is evolving. What seems unimaginable today is old news tomorrow,” said Hannigan, who lives near Winthrop.
The online petition said the “quarantine tourism trend will have disastrous consequences for the Methow Valley,” noting that Okanogan County has “limited health care capacity, infrastructure and equipment.”
What about Highway 20?
The petition is not the only way that residents have expressed concern. Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau said Monday that she has received numerous emails urging that the North Cascades Highway not be re-opened after the winter closure. “I probably get at least two a day” over the past week or so, she said.
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) crews began work this week to clear the snow and debris off the highway, which provides the most direct route to the Seattle area.
Ranzau said Winthrop supports reopening the highway, because it is “a vital link to our valley that provides another route for delivery of supplies to businesses and services that need to continue to operate during this emergency.” It also serves as an alternate evacuation route for people if routes over Loup Loup Pass or Highway 153 are closed by fires, floods or other natural disasters.
However, she acknowledged concerns about people who have been coming to the valley as the COVID-19 threat grows. “The town of Winthrop and Methow Valley are seeing a recent surge in people traveling to our area for recreation. Normally this would be a good thing. Not now,” Ranzau said in a statement Monday.
“I understand people wanting to get out into fresh air, sunshine and trails away from the city. However, these actions are putting our community at greater risk,” Ranzau said. “We have no hospital, our EMS workers could be stretched. Infrastructure would not be able to handle the injury or illness of visitors.”
Ranzau said she instructed Winthrop’s marketing director last week to discontinue all marketing geared to attracting visitors. A post on the town’s Facebook page says, “We know it’s advisable for everyone to stay home right now, but when it’s safe again we hope you remember us.”
Some valley residents have been critical of second-home owners who have come to the Methow Valley to ride out the health emergency, Ranzau said. “People in the upper valley are saying they are concerned with the numbers coming in,” she said. “Second-home owners are technically residents of the town or county and they have a right to be here. I hope they are respectful of what’s happening.”
“Anyone coming over to shelter in place or recreate needs to clearly understand what they are coming into,” said Cindy Button, director of Aero Methow Rescue Service. “The Methow Valley is rural, remote, geographically isolated and resource-limited.”
Like medical professionals in hospitals and clinics around the nation, Aero Methow could face a shortage of protective gear if it faced a large number of COVID-19 cases. “If we started getting a lot of calls, we’d go through our supply really fast,” Button said.
Even before Inslee ordered Washington residents to stay at home, hotels in Winthrop reported having almost no customers, said William Kilby, a Winthrop Town Council member who chairs the town’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee. “Almost [all] are empty,” he said Monday.
The “Close the Methow” petition had received more than 500 signatures as of Tuesday, although the governor’s stay-at-home order effectively closed the Methow to “quarantine tourism,” Hannigan said.
“We’ve got some hard times ahead, but the Methow community has experience dealing with disaster,” he said. “The lessons we learned during the wildfires are especially relevant today. It’s critical that we help and support each other, and act with kindness and compassion — because we are all alone out here together.”