LEAVENWORTH — It was a Chamber of Commerce week here last week, with the mild weather and unimpeded views of the Cascades towering over the Bavarian storefronts under bright blue skies.
The only thing missing were the people. And now, Washington’s tourism-dependent communities, which already had been struggling, will likely see visitors disappear completely after Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order for at least two weeks Monday evening.
“It’s a ghost town,” Julie Marker said last week. She takes vacation-rental reservations for Destination Leavenworth and has lived in the area for 25 years. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Leavenworth is certainly not alone. Tourism in the state had largely stopped at many top destinations amid coronavirus concerns.
“We’ve been hit hard and were hit first in the U.S.,” said David Blandford, senior vice president and co-chair of the Washington Tourism Alliance. “We are seeing, perhaps even before the other states, the beginning of the impact.”
The losses are still being calculated, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming at all state tourism destinations, from Walla Walla to the San Juan Islands, where officials for more than a week have been asking tourists not to come.
“The last time I saw our main street this empty was in the early 2000s before the big wine boom,” said Daylan Gibbard, director of sales and services for Visit Walla Walla. “Walla Walla looks like the sleepy ghost town that it used to be.”
Ghost town is a word heard often these days about tourist destinations. That’s just fine for the San Juan Islands.
The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau issued a statement March 16 encouraging visitors to postpone their travel plans to the San Juans to limit the potential spread of the virus.
“We have an older population, much older than the average population of the state, and we also have very limited health care facilities, so any serious health care case has to be flown off the island,” said Barbara Marrett, communications and stewardship manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau.
San Juan County had its first confirmed coronavirus case this past weekend.
“We love our visitors, but we have gotten a lot of pressure from our local community to please not invite people at this time,” Marrett said. “We want everybody to come when it’s safe to do so.”
Brendan Cowan, the emergency management director for San Juan County who is also working as public-information officer, said “the volume of tourism on the islands is down by a more than dramatic degree, but there have been reports of visitors still coming.”
Some lodging facilities had remained open on the San Juans, but the county council voted Monday to shut down all lodging to visitors. Hours later came Inslee’s announcement.
Leavenworth was not pushing people away last week — a stance that later changed — but they still stayed away.
“It’s almost eerie,” said Katie Smith, general manager of South restaurant, looking out at the empty street last week. “There are no cars out.”
March is typically the slowest month of the year in Leavenworth, said Nancy Smith, executive director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, but no one had seen it this slow.
“Even in March in normal years, the weekends are good, but they are not this year,” she said. “If we’ve got to have a bad month, this is a good month for a bad month.”
But if it stretches longer?
“I worry about all the businesses — I mean nationwide,” Nancy Smith said.
The U.S. Travel Association reported Wednesday that it expected 4.6 million travel-related jobs would be erased nationwide by the end of April, a 29 percent decline from the 15.8 million travel-related jobs in 2019.
“We certainly have concern that we could see that kind of loss in the state,” Blandford said.
Ocean Shores had to cancel two major festivals this month, costing the town about $1.5 million, according to Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler. Although the town has had a dramatic decrease in visitors, she said the beaches were pretty busy over the weekend.
“When I talked to the hotels on Friday, they shared that they had about 20% occupancy, so we did have a lot of folks on the beach,” Dingler said. The mayor said the town was already discouraging visitors because the average age of residents is about 60 and the town has limited resources.
While many lodging options at Ocean Shores were still open Monday, that was not the case in Pacific County, which encompasses the popular Long Beach Peninsula. On Sunday, the county ordered the closure of all its beach approaches and lodging businesses. The order came hours after the owners of 21 lodging establishments had voluntarily agreed to temporarily close to visitors.
The majority of Leavenworth’s accommodations had already closed before Inslee’s order. Many Leavenworth restaurants stayed open only for takeout.
Katie Smith said South had about six orders each on the first two days of takeout-only; she was hoping that a new online order form would increase business.
“Our owner told us we would be fine after all of this stuff,” she said. “I’ve definitely heard of places that are not going to be reopening.”
Marker, who handles vacation rentals in Leavenworth, spends more time these days canceling and postponing reservations than making new ones. Last week she took a reservation from a family in Seattle looking to get away from things. In a sign of how fast things can change in a week, that family would now have to stay home.
That is just fine with Nancy Smith.
“We want to encourage people to be safe and stay in,” she said.