COVID caution and commerce seek common ground
It’s spring, the pass is open and the mountains dazzling with snow, and people are tired of being cooped up by the state’s ongoing stay-at-home order.
So, despite the drizzle, more tourists ventured to the Methow Valley last weekend.
One family kept up an annual tradition for a May trip to Winthrop. A Seattle-area couple made a last-minute decision to head east for the weekend in search of sun.
Sharon Swadener and Mark Williams, from Auburn, were enjoying ice cream at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe on Sunday (May 17). They ended up in the valley spontaneously after hiking near Darrington.
The couple pulled into town Saturday night and initially had trouble finding a hotel room. With no restaurants open, they cobbled together a meal at a mini-mart.
“We’ve been traveling like crazy since this whole thing hit,” taking short hiking trips and visiting the tulip fields, said Swadener.
They’re aware of the governor’s Stay Home/Stay Healthy order, but said they’re focusing on social distancing. “When we go exploring, we have no contact with anybody,” Swadener said.
“We’re healthy; we have no underlying conditions — there’s no risk,” Swadener said. She said people with underlying conditions should stay home. “The rules are there. But, at the same time, you’ve got to find a balance. We’re doing our part to support businesses.”
But the upbeat tourists belied tensions lurking just below the surface, with many people anxious about their health and finances and some ideologically opposed to any restrictions.
One person berated a reporter for taking photos. “Since you’re wearing a face mask, you shouldn’t be out here, anyway,” the woman said.
A shopkeeper declined to talk about whether business had improved since the pass opened, saying, “Things are too elevated in the community right now — I don’t want to comment.”
Division and education
“The community, as a whole, is very divided,” Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau said. “There’s a lot of tension, a lot of divide.” Some people are staying home because they’re afraid, while others don’t believe the virus is real, she said.
Anecdotal reports said the town was busy but, midday on Sunday, there were just two dozen people strolling on the boardwalk, having ice cream outdoors at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, and playing miniature golf. Only a handful of stores were open.
“The town is still at Phase I. We’re going along with the governor,” Ranzau said, referring to the state’s four-stage reopening plan. The plan sets targets for testing and health care capacity for each phase.
Winthrop’s enforcement is limited. Because the restrictions come from the health department, the town doesn’t have responsibility for the regulations, Ranzau said. They’re emphasizing education so that people will comply on their own, she said.
The county is also stressing education, and supports businesses to use their own judgment about precautions, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said.
“It’s a tough situation, when you’re trying to tell people what to do — and they don’t want to,” Ranzau said. “It’s really a slap in the face for people who are doing it right. We’re trying to get people to comply because we don’t want additional cases.”
Many businesses and individuals are doing an excellent job of keeping people safe, with gloves and masks, plexiglass shields, and curbside delivery, Ranzau said.
The Winthrop Town Council plans to discuss the approach to re-opening at their meeting this week.
The Okanogan County commissioners adopted a resolution April 14 restricting hotels and campgrounds to essential travelers through May 4, the original expiration date of the state’s Stay Home/Stay Healthy order. Although the state extended the order through the end of May, the commissioners voted not to renew the county’s resolution. With the state’s prohibition on non-essential travel, the county didn’t need to duplicate them, they said.
Not reinstating the order has caused confusion, Ranzau said.
“I’m super, super confused,” said Anna Kominak, owner of the Pine Near RV Park in Winthrop. She’s been trying to follow the regulations, but said they’ve been very unclear. Initially she believed the RV park could open to non-essential travelers after the county’s resolution expired on May 4. But a friend texted her last week with different information.
So on Friday (May 15), Kominak called people to cancel their reservations for the Memorial Day weekend. She’s telling callers that Pine Near is open only for essential travelers until May 26, since the state said each phase would last at least three weeks. She’s awaiting an announcement from Gov. Jay Inslee.
But it’s ironic — they’re not supposed to ask people about their private business, Kominak said. “I’m trying to navigate the situation and be mindful. There are so many different opinions and emotions attached,” she said.
Kathleen Jardin, co-owner of Methow Reservations, which handles primarily nightly rentals — cabins licensed by the county for short-term stays — has been tracking the rules carefully, but agreed it’s been confusing. All their rentals were shut down starting March 18, and they just got the go-ahead to resume rentals last week. But in the interim, essential travelers were directed to hotels, Jardin said.
“Some people are mad we’re renting; some are mad we’re not,” she said. “It’s really a roller coaster. It incites so much passion.”
People are renting cabins to get away from home. They know they’re not going out for dinner, Jardin said. “People want everything to be normal — but it’s not,” she said.
Methow Reservations is including a pointed message with all booking confirmations that says, in part, “Visitors should join locals and wear masks in public, practice social distancing, and enhanced hand washing protocol. We ask that you bring masks, disinfectant hand wipes, Purell, and/or gloves and keep them in your car…. We have very limited supplies in our stores for you to purchase.”
Other hotels have also started re-opening. After a two-month closure, Sun Mountain Lodge opened the Patterson Lake cabins on Monday (May 18) for essential travelers. The lodge anticipates re-opening a few rooms starting Memorial Day weekend. Food and beverages will be take-out only and there will be no other services.
The state projected that it would be at least three weeks before it would be safe to move beyond Phase I, depending on testing, contact tracing, the capacity of the health-care system, and the ability to protect high-risk populations.
Phase II relaxes the Stay Home order only slightly, allowing “limited non-essential travel within proximity of your home,” but it doesn’t define proximity. Non-essential travel isn’t allowed until Phase III — mid-summer, at the earliest.
Ranzau acknowledged the severe impacts on people’s livelihood. “But how businesses approach this — their staff, their customers — will decide the health of the valley,” she said.
“But we are resilient — we’ll be fine,” Ranzau said.