It may be an oversimplification to say that our communities are becoming divided between those who want to roll out the red carpet to visitors and those who want to pull up the drawbridge.
But it’s not that far off the mark when generalizing a complex situation like the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of us can agree on the following:
• San Juan County’s economy will not survive without tourism dollars.
• San Juan County is home to many senior citizens and our rural medical care is not equipped to handle a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.
Health officer Dr. Frank James, M.D., along with the rest of the county’s public health department and the county council, has been grappling with how to create an environment where small businesses can survive and citizens can remain healthy.
On May 23, Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman approved the county application to enter Phase Two of the state’s four-phased reopening plan, which requires businesses to comply with all health and safety requirements and post signage outlining safety protocols. It allowed limited opening of restaurants, retail stores, some fitness operations, professional services and churches. Transient lodging reopened at 50 percent capacity, however, non-essential travel is still prohibited. Though lodging was not restricted by the state, San Juan County had elected to close transient lodging for all non-essential purposes on March 25, relaxing the orders to allow for 50 percent capacity on June 3.
To qualify moving to Phase Two, the county had to demonstrate it has adequate local hospital bed capacity; necessary personal protective equipment supplies to keep health care workers safe; plans for making testing available and accessible to everyone in the county with symptoms; staffing for case investigations and contact tracing; housing for people in isolation or quarantine who can’t or don’t want to do so at home; case management services to those in isolation and quarantine; and an ability to respond rapidly to outbreaks in congregate settings.
After entering Phase Two, where it appears we’ll remain for the foreseeable future due to the spread of disease statewide and nationally, some islanders felt overwhelmed and scared by the increase in visitors. Within the pages of our newspaper, we’ve had community members voice anger and distress at crowded ferry lines, busy restaurants and sidewalks filled with tourists while others were thrilled to finally feel some financial relief. Heated arguments between community members are popping up all over Facebook.
Each community is handling this summer differently. The Orcas and Lopez Chambers opted to cancel the annual fireworks shows while San Juan and Roche Harbor chose to proceed. We are hearing reports of respectful tourists who wear a mask and social distance as well as stories about those who are not.
In the last few weeks, the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau received criticism for advertising on the mainland. On July 7, the bureau announced it would be ceasing all regional advertising until the county enters Phase Three.
Its statement read: “The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau resumed its regional advertising campaign when county officials anticipated that the county would be moving to Phase 3 within a day or two. Many were surprised when the county health officer postponed the original application to Phase 3, and then when Gov. Inslee paused all requests for phase changes, including the San Juans, on July 2. This morning (July 7), the Visitors Bureau initiated the suspension of all advertising. All ads should be down by mid-week. Bureau staff has been doing their best to balance a soft opening with community concerns for safety. To this end, the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau created a “Stay Safe” page and checklist to partner with our visitors to keep the island community safe.”
The bureau offers such tips as practice social distancing; wear a face-covering inside all businesses and public places; bring supples for public restrooms that may be closed or limited; adjust to limits in the number of people in a space; and be patient and kind.
We ask potential tourists to please think carefully about planning a trip to the San Juans. Are you prepared to be respectful of our communities and strictly adhere to safety measures? Is your travel essential? Will you limit your exposure to those who are at-risk?
We ask our fellow islanders to be considerate of each other and those who are traveling here. We all have the same goal: to be happy and healthy. If someone’s behavior is making you feel unsafe, gently explain why. Refrain from publicly shaming people via social media. Ask questions; listen.
We are being tested in ways we could have never predicted. Now is the time to step and show the rest of the country how truly connected and compassionate communities operate.