As July comes to an end, we mark a sad milestone: the number of Covid-19 cases in San Juan County has nearly doubled in the four weeks since the Visitors Bureau prematurely declared the islands re-opened to tourism from the mainland. That’s just the number of cases reported by island residents, and does not include the mainlanders that were infected when they crowded our ferries, parks, beaches, and grocery stores. As a matter of simple biology, the evidence is that San Juan County must restrict recreational travel and lodging until new cases decline again.
Our county government nonetheless insists that the flare-up is entirely due to islanders recklessly going to the mainland, and chides us (rather than the tourists) for not staying home in quarantine. This argument neglects key facts. Anyone that has waited in a ferry line since May knows that far more people are coming here from the mainland, than islanders traveling to the mainland. A majority of visitors come from the Seattle-King County metropolitan area where the current Covid-19 case rate is 634 per 100,000, four times the case rate in San Juan County even after the July surge. All other things being equal, encounters between islanders and mainlanders should result in more transmission to islanders, and we should be trying to reduce contacts with mainlanders regardless of which direction they travel. Any difference would have to be due to a difference in the way people interact with each other on the mainland or in the islands.
The county’s argument implies that an islander is more likely to be infected by visiting a friend or relative on the mainland, than by interacting with a stranger who visits the islands. First, it is misleading to assume that most islanders visit the mainland for social/recreational purposes rather than for medical appointments, purchasing supplies they cannot find in the islands, or for business or professional reasons. It also implies that islanders are careless when traveling and do not wear masks, distance, or wash their hands routinely. But are islanders traveling for medical or business reasons less careful than mainlanders vacationing is the islands? I doubt the county has reliable data on this question, but in my recent experience islanders tend to be more careful than our mainland guests.
My laboratory’s field team works on some very popular (and ecologically fragile) public lands where we have been seeing visitor numbers about 50 percent greater than last year; and where despite crowding, barely half the visitors are wearing face coverings. Not only are island residents reluctant to use their own public lands under these circumstances, but the ecological impacts are growing, and tourists that party on our trails and beaches do not spend much money at our local businesses. Islanders lose safe access to our outdoors, face greater infection risk and increased damage to habitats and wildlife, and get hardly any money out of it.
Food and lodging (including year-round food sales to residents, which are not trivial) employ barely 12 percent of working islanders. More islanders are employed in public service, banking, health professions or education (20 percent). Sacrificing islanders’ safety in the interest of unrestricted tourism is not only callous but simply bad economic policy. What makes it worse is attempting to cover it up by pretending that islanders only catch Covid-19 when they are on the mainland.
The safety of our Lopez Island community is our highest priority. As we deal with the impact of COVID-19, the Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce is encouraging visitors, and people whose primary home is somewhere other.... Read all
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