It’s the perfect holiday weekend scene in the Methow Valley.
In downtown Winthrop, the boardwalks are full and vehicle traffic is backed up at the four-way stop. At Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, happy visitors are lapping at ice cream cones, crowded into the courtyard, chatting and having a great time.
We love this familiar scene. It’s the iconic image we conjure up when thinking about what a happy weekend in Winthrop looks like. It tells us that another successful summer is upon us, if only we escape the wildfires and smoke. We are delighted to share this place with appreciative visitors, fully acknowledging that tourism is what keeps the valley viable. What could be better?
But that was last year, and most of the previous years. This year, the same scene is generating local emotions ranging from annoyance to outrage. That’s the difference COVID-19 makes in these days of uncertainty, anxiety and, yes, hope for a recovery that includes both a healthy citizenry and a healthy economy.
It was inevitable that with the North Cascades Highway open and the state poised to relax some business restrictions, we’d see a surge of visitors. But I doubt many of us were prepared for the traffic we saw last weekend. One could be forgiven for thinking we somehow had become wide-open Alabama overnight. What’s disconcerting is that we have never thought of the valley as a “whatever the hell you want do” sort of destination.
It’s hard to park those emotions and take the longer view that this too shall pass, when so many of us are taking quarantine and coronavirus practices seriously. We are in uncharted territory full of political minefields.
After several quiet months, I don’t think we were mentally ready for the sudden return of tourism. And to be fair, it’s probable that most valley visitors last weekend were at least cognizant of community feelings and behaved appropriately, and most open businesses prepared for them. They weren’t the highly visible ones.
You could, I suppose, blame the media for focusing on the attention-getting stuff. A few hundred noisy, entitled people show up at the state Capitol to demonstrate and whine about losing their happy hours and salon appointments, feeling the need to be armed to make their point, and they get news stories — while most people are doing their best to comply with state guidelines and not make headlines. So, too, even here we may tend to focus on what’s most noticeable.
Many local businesses, starved for consistent revenue, have worked hard to adapt and provide a safe atmosphere while encouraging commerce. They deserve our support. It hasn’t been easy, what with shifting expectations and a murky time line for fully reopening. Nobody can blame them for trying to make a living under previously unimaginable circumstances — our livelihoods are dependent on their livelihoods.
Over the past several weeks, quite a few people have encouraged the newspaper to “name names” of local businesses they thought were not properly engaged in coronavirus protocols. I told them all pretty much the same thing: We are not the coronavirus police or the enforcers. We’re not going to get into blaming and shaming, or unfavorably comparing one store’s practices to another’s. Talk to management. Don’t patronize those places if that’s how you feel. Make your own choices using your best judgment.
So I find it awkward and perhaps unfair to cite Sheri’s, whose annual opening we consider a seasonal benchmark and which is only taking advantage of its location to ply its usual business. But it’s the most visible representation of the tourism influx, the one people can’t help seeing, so fairly or not is getting the brunt of attention. The Winthrop Town Council referenced the store at a recent meeting, which makes it a topic for public discussion. I’ve heard or read many comments in the past couple of days about the Sheri’s crowds, most of them unflattering: no masks, no distancing, no apparent concern for each other or the people who live and work here. It’s what people are talking about. At the same time, there is no real enforcement going on, so where does the responsibility lie?
Why is that noteworthy? Lauri Jones, director of Okanogan County Public Health, told the Winthrop Town Council last week that 11 of the county’s cases — about 25% — were generated from one family gathering. One event, one day, 11 people with the virus. The Methow Valley hasn’t had a reported case in more than a month. I think it will be astonishing if that doesn’t change.