STEVENSON, SKAMANIA COUNTY — For those sick of worrying about sickness, the siren call of a holiday weekend at this quaint town on the Columbia Gorge was too hard to resist. A herd of tourists came, flooding the downtown’s barbershop and restaurants, their desire to shed cabin fever overcoming their fear of catching something worse. They arrived from as far as Seattle, 200 miles away; their governor’s order to stay home was not particularly persuasive when it ran up against the desire to roam.
Skamania County, with only three confirmed coronavirus cases, was among the first wave of counties deemed safe enough to progress to the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reopen the state. So by Memorial Day weekend, Skamania County’s shops and restaurants were cleared to reopen, albeit with restrictions in place.
In a span of five hours, it felt as if a zillion people had used their get-out-of-jail-free-card in this county by the Oregon border.
By Friday evening, the 100 parking spots along the four-block main drag filled up as visitors pulled over to dine in. Those who didn’t get a table waited along the sidewalks, many brushing shoulder-to-shoulder with other parties and passers-by.
Most didn’t wear face masks.
The wait ran from 20 minutes to an hour, and some restaurants stayed open later to accommodate the hungry crowd. Mark Walker, who rode his Harley-Davidson from his Moses Lake home, was among the lucky diners who scored a table at the Big River Grill, one of the four restaurants open on Friday night in town. “It feels weird but good,” he said while wolfing down a plate of fettuccine Alfredo. “I feel apprehensive. I’m not sure it is the right thing to do, but I’m ready for it. I’m ready to sit down and talk to people.”
During the pandemic stay-home order, Walker killed time by riding around the Northwest, and frankly, “I’m tired of eating at gas stations,” he said.
The crowding underscores the challenges that lie ahead for the state as it has greenlighted 21 out of Washington’s 39 counties to enter the second stage of Inslee’s four-phase coronavirus recovery plan. As the reopening of Skamania County showed, many Washingtonians living in closed counties chose to hopscotch to less-restricted areas, threatening to overwhelm those communities and potentially undermining the state’s coronavirus containment strategy.
The state allows counties with fewer than 10 new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents across a 14-day span to apply for Phase 2 and reopen with restrictions. For instance, restaurants must operate at 50% capacity, allowing parties of no more than five, and tables must be 6 feet apart.
Skamania was a safe bet to clear those state hurdles.
More than 80% of Skamania County is public land. With only 12,000 residents there, it is easier to find distance from other people. But that rural isolation that has shielded people now also threatens to turn the county into a hotspot, many residents worry, as restrictions loosen, the weather improves and tourists flood the area’s hiking trails and waterfront park.
“The reason we are open is our [coronavirus] numbers are low. This is something we have earned,” said Stevenson Mayor Scott Anderson. “It should be something for our residents to enjoy. But people from out of town could change those numbers.”
This county simply isn’t ready to handle the surge of tourists at this time, the mayor said.
The community gets the brunt of the crowd due to several factors. Adjacent Clark and Yakima counties have seen recent spikes in coronavirus cases and aren’t yet allowed to open things like dining rooms and beer gardens. And two weeks ago, the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest reopened more than 200 trails and day-use areas to the public.
In Carson, a gateway to Gifford Pinchot, the town’s convenience store, Wind River Market, got so overrun two weekends ago with hikers buying bottled water and park passes, that a volunteer had to play traffic controller to nudge customers to social distance along the aisles.
Over the holiday weekend, Backwoods Brewing Company had an hourlong wait list despite the addition of more picnic tables, and a party of four from Portland gave up and got pizza to-go. Even though the beer garden was operating at 50% capacity, the owner said this was still the brewery’s biggest sales weekend since its opening eight years ago.
Five miles west in Stevenson, while standing along the commercial drag, Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown seemed pleased as he watched a caravan of cars and trailers drive to or through his town. When the county was in the first phase, “you might see one car every minute,” said Brown.
Now pedestrians wait to cross the street.
The sheriff’s views differ from those of many local business owners. He believes Inslee’s four-phase plan is unconstitutional, and that the media has misled the public on the danger of the coronavirus.
“There is a vulnerable [older] population, but we can protect that population,” he said. But in regard to the rest of the population, despite science that has proved otherwise, Brown says he considers the coronavirus no worse than the flu.
He wants the governor to open all 39 counties instead of taking baby steps, which amounts to a slow death for all the struggling mom-and-pop businesses in his county.
“At some point, you have to step back and resume what life is like before this and see what happens,” he said. “We cannot live in the bubble forever.”
Told of his remarks, several shopkeepers rolled their eyes and privately expressed concerns over how vigilantly the county’s top law enforcement officer will enforce Inslee’s four-phase plan — the one that Brown disdains.
Brown, though, has the mayor’s support. The sheriff has enforced the governor’s stay-home order to the letter of the law, Anderson said. “Even if he might have different thoughts, he has done right by the city and the county. He has not let his personal thoughts” affect his job, Anderson said.
The holiday rush has passed, but the litmus test of whether this rural community can handle a wave of tourists comes later this week when the county’s biggest employer, Skamania Lodge, reopens its 254 rooms. The tony hotel is a major economic driver, employing 350 and generating $2.8 million in sales tax last year.
Even before the hotel’s planned reopening this Wednesday, its marquee “treehouses”($550-$650 per night), essentially cabins elevated on poles, have almost sold out for the next five weekends. The only recreation activity open at the lodge last week were the ziplines running above the property that drew tourists from as far as Kennewick and Seattle.
During the pandemic, the lodge’s goal is to keep the crowd outdoors, where they can spread out along the lodge’s 135-acre playground with three hiking trails.
Two hotel restaurants will be closed at least during the second phase, and its third will offer only take-out. The staff will direct diners to where more than 100 tables and chairs have been stationed 6 feet apart on the patio and front lawn, with postcard views of kite surfers on the river against the backdrop of Wind and Dog Mountain.
A staff member will be tasked with disinfecting every Adirondack chair after each use.
“Their business is so dependent on bringing large numbers of people for conferences. They’ve got to be anxious and concerned … They want to be back up and running, but they have to make sure nothing occurs” that will cause more coronavirus cases for this community, said Skamania County Commissioner Bob Hamlin. “They can’t make the news in the wrong way.”
That sentiment is echoed around Stevenson, where many small-business owners fear they will have the dubious distinction of being the site of the next coronavirus outbreak, which would sink their livelihoods.
Along Stevenson’s commercial strip, where restaurants were attracting crowds, shopkeeper Bonnie Heemeier was hesitant to allow customers into her floral shop and boutique during the holiday rush. Eventually, she will open her women’s clothing store by appointment only. Just not now. Not with such heavy foot traffic outside.
“I don’t want to contribute to the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t want this to be a spiked community with everyone coming here now,” she said.
A block away, at the popular Big River Grill, owner Justin Gross shared the same concerns, but with sales down 87%, he needs to reopen to save his diner. Gross started as a dishwasher at this diner 14 years ago before squirreling away enough money to buy it five years ago.
“This is about survival. It is a very thin margin and a tough racket,” Gross said. “It was a lot easier when someone else’s name was on the check and you could just walk away.”
By Friday evening, his dining room quickly filled with customers spilling over to his patio, even though he was still stringing lights overhead and not quite ready to debut the al fresco section. Gross had to use a tape measure between tables to ensure they met the state’s 6-foot social-distancing rule. Customers now scan barcodes to get the menu on their phones. And his servers are trying to get used to taking orders while standing 6 feet away and talking with their masks on.
His weekend sales were encouraging, but with capacity capped at 50%, he’s still bleeding money. “The magic is to get to Phase 4,” when Inslee allows restaurants to operate without any capacity restrictions, Gross said.
All that hinges on whether the county can maintain its low coronavirus case count next month.
During tourist season.
Several business owners said they will be holding their breath and crossing their fingers in the coming weeks when the coronavirus count comes out.