Emotions have gotten heated in isolated, picturesque Pacific County, pop. 22,000, a three-hour drive from Seattle, out there by the coast.
As an anonymous leaflet left on car windshields the weekend of March 28 at the WorldMark Long Beach timeshare condos put it: “Your vacation is not worth our lives. Go home. Stay home. Save lives. The Long Beach Peninsula has only ONE VENTILATOR. Do you really want to test those odds?”
John Whitby, general manager of the WorldMark, says he wrote off the leaflet to a “Karen,” a slang term for an entitled, middle-aged mom.
The locals here know they have been very, very lucky, at least for a while.
Until April 10, Pacific was one of two Washington counties the daily COVID-19 statistics showed as “0 confirmed cases, 0 deaths.”
The other is Garfield County, in Eastern Washington’s wheat hills, the least populated of the state’s 39 counties.
“We have a big county,” says Martha Lanman, administrator for the Garfield County Health District, meaning how spread out residents are.
It sure is. Its 2,200 inhabitants translate to nine people per square mile, according to census data, compared to King County’s 1,056 people per square mile.
On April 10, Pacific County left the 0/0 columns. It showed one confirmed case, although that individual had been out of state for five or six weeks and simply had a legal address in the county, says Steve Krager, deputy health officer for five counties that include Pacific.
Then on April 18 and April 19, the county announced two more positives, both residents in the area. They quarantined at home.
Pacific County has the second-highest percentage of second-home owners in the state. They often vacation at their Long Beach Peninsula properties.
(San Juan County has the highest percentage of such owners. According to that county’s assessor, a remarkable 50% of its real property parcels have out-of-county addresses for tax payments.)
In Pacific County, the assessor’s office says 40% of properties have out-of-county addresses, 49.5% for homes along the peninsula.
The full-time residents got upset as tourists and second-home owners kept arriving.
“Why are these people disregarding the stay at home guidance and possibly endangering our lives?” asks Bonnie Cozby, at 67, a 27-year-peninsula resident. She’s president of the Ocean Park Area Chamber of Commerce. “Well, it’s becoming a bit too much.”
Yes, Pacific County’s tourist brochure advertises the 28-mile-long Long Beach Peninsula as a place where you can “breathe in the fresh salt air” and take off your shoes and “walk on the cool sand.” Its little towns are dotted with shops and cafes catering to visitors.
For the tourists, it promotes everything from oyster and clam fests to a kite festival and weekend summer fests. At Long Beach, an arch across a road to the beach proclaims, “World’s Longest Beach,” a bit of an exaggeration. At 150 miles, Praia do Cassino Beach in Brazil has that honor, says WorldAtlas.com.
Then came the virus.
“It’s not like we can put a gate across Highway 101,” the highway to the coast, says Frank Wolfe, one of three county commissioners.
“Last thing we need”
Frank Lehn administers the Long Beach Peninsula Friends of Facebook page.
Comments got so nasty that on April 19, Lehn wrote that he’d no longer post COVID-19 updates. About the vitriol, Lehn wrote, “The purpose of this group is and always has been to show the world what a great place this is to live and visit. From what I’ve seen lately, if I didn’t already live here I’m not sure I’d want to, or visit either.”
To discourage visitors, on March 22 the county shut down all road access to the beach. That led the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to close the famous razor clam-digging season through April and probably May.
It was “difficult for us to go forward with a razor-clam opener if folks couldn’t get to the beach,” says Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager.
Plus, on that same day, the county issued an order telling hotels, motels, AirBnbs, RV parks and all other “hospitality lodging” to cease operations.
Wolfe has a ready quote: “If you live in Seattle, you stay in Seattle. If you live in Portland, you stay in Portland.” The latter is a little over two hours away.
What particularly upset locals was the crowds that showed up the weekend of March 21. That following Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee issued his stay-at-home directive.
“The weather was nice, and it meant a lot of people from outside the county coming and crowding the beaches and the grocery stores. People were worried about essential supplies,” says health officer Krager.
At age 70, Wolfe, the county commissioner, can relate very well to the worries of many of the area’s residents.
“We have an aging population. We have a fair number of people who came here to retire. The last thing we need is someone bringing the virus here, leave some droplets on the counter, and let them spread the virus around the community,” says Wolfe.
People age 50 and over account for 54% of Pacific County’s population. That’s compared to 32% for King County.
There are two small hospitals in Pacific County, and they are meant to stabilize patients so they can be taken to a facility that can provide acute care.
Ocean Beach Hospital has three short-term ventilators that’d be used to transport a patient, according to the Washington State Hospital Association.
Willapa Harbor Hospital has one long-term ventilator and one short-term ventilator.
Hence the anonymous leaflet left on the cars.
Stephanie Graves, manager of Kiss of Mist Espresso in Ocean Park, says some visitors don’t realize the impact they could have.
“They have the best of intentions and think that because they brought food, and don’t plan on spending time with other people, that we’re safe,” she says.
“What they’re not understanding is that every cup of coffee they buy with cash, every $20 bill worth of fuel they’re getting for their drive home from their day trip, every time they stop for a snack and use a card that goes into a machine, potentially passes of the virus to the next person.”
On Facebook pages, and in the comments on the website of the Chinook Observer, the local weekly, the postings have at times become impassioned.
One comment, by Karen Kilpatrick of Yakima, generated 109 responses.
“My husband and I have spent thousands of dollars in your community in the last 40 years . . . After reading how your community has responded with very unkind posts about ‘tourists,’ I will be spending my money elsewhere in the future. I’m sure this doesn’t bother you,” she wrote.
Kilpatrick, 68, is a retired office clerk. Her husband, Larry Kilpatrick, is a retired Yakima cop.
Her feelings were genuinely hurt.
But as one of the commenters posted, “if your feelings got hurt! Too bad!” The commenter went on, “I saw a huge motor home bus pulling a full-size truck, with out of state plates! Sure, they might have their own property, but you think they have enough supplies in that motor home for a 2-week quarantine? probably not!”
Kilpatrick remembers all the good times her family had on the peninsula, traveling there with their five kids, and in recent years, with grandkids.
A couple of years, she says, the family spent $1,000 for three nights at an oceanside inn just so they could view the Fourth of July fireworks.
Well, she says, “Long Beach isn’t the only place in the world.” Time to find a new spot.
For someone such as Heather Campbell, who runs a one-woman store in Ilwaco called Purly Shell Fiber Arts, what’s happened to her community has been a harrowing journey. It’s tourists who buy her yarns and fibers for crocheting and knitting.
She shut down her business March 14.
“I felt completely defeated,” she says. “I went home and cried.”
Then her hope was renewed.
Her shop has a website and is on Facebook and Instagram. Those same tourists began ordering online.
Campbell has to push those yarns daily on social media, but, she says, she’s gained back 40% of her business.
Those tourists, she says, “Have a real sense of ownership, even if they don’t live here. People who loved to visit called, emailed and sent funds.”
But for Kilpatrick, it’s still too sensitive to think about returning to the peninsula when this is all over.
“It really upset me,” she says about those social media comments typed out in a few seconds.