Submitted by the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.
The world may no longer resemble the one we knew in early March, but San Juan County has risen to the occasion of meeting the COVID-19 challenge head-on. Now, as we start to take steps to reopen, we must continue to pull together. We must try to understand the different perspectives on reopening.
One of the Visitor Bureau’s most important new goals is to educate visitors and ask them to share the responsibility of keeping our community safe by following our County Health Officer’s guidelines. This partnership is key to moving forward carefully and cohesively.
Dr. James’s order to allow lodgings to open at 50% during Phase 2 is an opportunity for these enterprises to help fine-tune safety practices before Phase 3 begins. These businesses represent long-term community members who care about the safety of their fellow islanders and workers as much as the safety of their guests.
While lodgings in other Washington counties were never closed and continued to welcome visitors, our lodgings were asked to stay closed to visitors. They have suffered immense losses to keep us safe, and have demonstrated they value community over profit. We can be proud that there have been no COVID fatalities in San Juan County due to everyone’s shared sacrifice.
From the onset of the crisis, the Visitors Bureau has been working with the County Council, Department of Health & Community Services, Department of Emergency Management and our Board on messaging to potential visitors. We suspended our advertising campaigns in mid-March and we posted our first Travel Advisory on March 16. We adjust the advisory, sometimes as many as five times a day, to reflect the changing landscape of regulations and safety measures.
The Board of the Visitors Bureau consists of 11 of our approximately 300 members. These individuals represent 12 individual businesses and the three island Chambers of Commerce which represent over 545 businesses. Another Board member, the San Juan County Economic Development Council (EDC), works with businesses throughout the County. Collectively, our board members have lived here for 124 years, have owned or managed businesses/nonprofits here for 150 years, and employ 72 year-round, full-time islanders and another 164 seasonal island employees. These individuals are an integral part of our community. They are concerned about losing their businesses and their staff members who are unemployed without health benefits. All are struggling to make ends meet.
At this time, our Board meets weekly with our staff, and we’re currently creating a “pledge” from our tourism industry to our visitors, and for our visitors to our businesses and islanders, similar to what Asheville, North Carolina, has done regarding wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, following CDC guidelines, to keep each other safe. This document will become a poster that will be distributed to all island businesses by the Visitors Bureau and Chambers, along with masks.
Our work remains devoted to keeping our community safe while helping our visitor-dependent island businesses and nonprofits stay informed and afloat. We’ve organized a Restaurant Recovery/Reopening Committee and a Lodging Recovery/Reopening Committee, and virtually connected them with Mark Tompkins from SJC Health & Community Services, and the Washington Hospitality Association. The goal, again, is to make everyone aware of strict health and safety guidelines so we move forward together to protect the place we all love.
It’s been a challenging time for every one of us. Let’s be kind to each other, our leaders, businesses and visitors. We’ve come so far together, safely. Now, more than ever, we need to stay San Juan Islands Strong.