EVERETT – Last year’s gray whale season was a washout for Island Adventures Whale Watching. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to cancel tours from March to May.
Last month, the 85-foot three-tier whale watch boat returned to Everett Harbor, and the three-hour cruises to see the migratory gray whales continued.
But the crew waited until the last minute to start the season.
“We held back orders for clam soup and other foods and drinks until two days before the first trip,” said Erin Gless, senior naturalist at the Anacortes-based company. “We especially wanted to be sure that it was really an attempt.”
The company has a reduced schedule, offering tours every other day instead of daily from an Everett dock. Still, Gless said, “It’s great to be back on the water.”
It’s the start of the season, but not a normal season, Gless said.
The whale watching ship is 50% full. Masks are required on board. Instead of hiring an additional 15 to 20 employees, the company will stick with a core workforce of about a dozen, Gless said.
“Things are moving forward,” she said. “But we all know that things can change at any time.”
Usually tourist spots plan an influx of summer visitors around this time. This year, many are still debating whether to open.
People board the Island Explorer 4 at Everett. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
In 2018 and 2019, tourism was the second largest economy in Snohomish County, according to county officials, with annual spending of more than $ 1 billion.
Figures for 2020 are not yet available. But last year, in the grip of the pandemic, the local tourism industry flattened out.
“I hope we never see a year like the last,” said Annique Bennett, Snohomish County’s strategic tourism coordinator.
“People are trying to adapt to the current environment and maintain their presence,” said Bennett. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but we are still at an uncertain time.”
Snohomish County’s fairs and festivals, as well as tourism-dependent businesses, are struggling to regain a foothold.
The organizers have not yet decided whether the Evergreen State Fair will take place in Monroe. The fair, which lasts 12 days and attracts an average of 350,000 visitors, was canceled last year.
On board the whale-watching ship Island Explorer 4 in Everett, a sign reminds people to wear a mask and social distance. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
“We are currently planning a modified fair in case we can have one,” said Jeremy Husby, division manager at Snohomish County Conservation and Natural Resources. “However, we will not make a public statement on a decision until May 1st.”
The fair accepts applications from providers and entertainers. With no guarantee of a personal event, applicants are advised to prepare an alternative, virtual presentation.
Stage 3 of the state’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan, which goes into effect March 22, could provide scope. It will allow 25% capacity for rodeos, motorsports and outdoor spectator sports and 50% capacity for indoor dining and indoor entertainment events.
Consideration of vaccines
Ticket sales, security and concession costs are normal for trade fair and festival organizers. This year’s billing includes the availability of vaccines and models that predict herd immunity.
The Arlington Fly-In is ready.
“One of the challenges we face is getting a lot of people flying in from out of state,” said Barbara Tolbert, the event’s volunteer executive director and mayor of Arlington.
The introduction of the vaccine, the vaccination rate and “what happens to the (virus) variants” are part of the calculation, said Tolbert. Still: “We are pretty optimistic that we will have an event in August.”
People keep their distance on board the Island Explorer 4. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Many companies take a measured approach to reopening, waiting until the last minute to order supplies, add staff, or renew an insurance policy or license to operate.
Jerry Michalec, owner and lead guide at North Cascades River Expeditions, a small Arlington rafting company, doesn’t plan on getting his feet wet unless it feels right.
“At this point we are adopting a wait and see attitude,” said Michalec.
He stayed at home last year and skipped the entire season.
What comes next might depend on his partner’s vaccination status, Michalec said.
“I had both vaccinations, but my partner is younger,” he said. “As soon as she gets hers, we’re ready to go.”
Even so, he delayed the purchase of business insurance, which is necessary to keep his business license up to date.
“Last year I paid for the insurance and the season never happened,” said Michalec. “It’s too early to be sure things will work out.”
The rafting season has started but Michalec is not worried about a later start – if he chooses to start. This season promises a lot of catching up to do and a lot of water.
“We had a lot of snow this year so our rivers will run much longer this year,” said Michalec. “We’ll go all the way by mid-August.”
The Island Explorer 4 is retreating from Everett Marina Harbor. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Penetrated city dwellers
At the Silver Cloud Inn on the Mukilteo coast, General Manager Maia Kaleuha said she plans to hire four new employees – two for reception and two for housekeeping.
Last year, the pandemic forced downsizing in the hotel with 70 rooms.
“We have such small employees – four people are a great asset,” said Kaleuha.
Last minute reservations called a day or two in advance and even bookings made on the same day are common, she said.
“They’re excited even if they just come from Seattle,” said Kaleuha.
“We’ve seen a slow trickle of business travelers,” she said, although most visitors are no more than 50 miles away. “People who haven’t traveled in a while tell us they feel so good.”
Hotel occupancy in Snohomish County was 50% at the end of February, compared to an average of 40% last summer. This emerges from the recent Smith Travel Report, in which the occupancy data is recorded. The normal hotel occupancy averages around 80%.
With vaccination rates increasing, Kaleuha and other hoteliers hope that visitor and occupancy rates will increase.
Snohomish County officials distributed $ 415,000 in federal aid this spring to reopen three of the county’s public facilities: the Edmonds Center for the Arts, the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, and the Lynnwood Convention Center. Together, the three institutions are responsible for the county’s $ 78 million annual economic impact and support local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.
The Boeing Future of Flight in Mukilteo reopened for the second time in 12 months in February, but the star of the show, the Boeing Factory Tour, remains closed. The company’s Everett Assembly Plant tour in Paine Field typically attracts 300,000 visitors a year. The Boeing Co. has not indicated when it could resume tours.
The fate of Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, which closed in May, is in the air. The Friends of the Flying Heritage, the nonprofit that runs the museum, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The parking lot at the Paine Field Museum was empty this week, but when he peeked through the glass doors nothing appeared to have been moved in the exhibition hall, including a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber and other exhibits.
Ellerie Cain, the owner of Ellerie’s River Cottages, unfolded the welcome mat at her bed and breakfast in the Darrington area last week after choosing to stay closed last year.
“I really missed my fabulous guests!” Said Cain.
On Wednesday she mowed the lawn, cleaned up the conservatory, and went on a grocery run to prepare for the arrival of the first guests in a year.
She wasn’t sure what to do this spring, and a phone call from a couple in Seattle hoping to escape the city convinced them to open the cottages.
“You were desperate,” said Cain.
“The egg woman is going to make some money from buying eggs again,” she added.
The same goes for the grocery store, the pizzeria and the coffee stand.
“It’s putting money back in everyone’s pocket,” she said.
But a Seattle couple doesn’t make it tourist season. Crossing his fingers, Cain hopes this year will see the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, Darrington Timberbowl Rodeo and Summer Meltdown Music Festival – events that will help keep the cottages fully booked.
In the meantime, there is a shipload of city dwellers who have been penned in and are now longing to “get some fresh air”.
Janice Podsada; [email protected]; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods