Capt. Carl Williams speaks to a socially distanced and masked group of whale watchers before boarding the Island Explorer 4 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Capt. Carl Williams speaks to a socially distanced and masked group of whale watchers before boarding the Island Explorer 4 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Snohomish County’s tourism workers feel hopeful, wary in 2021

Many seasonal ventures are waiting until the last minute to decide whether to open this year.

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 through May.

Last month, the three-tiered 85-foot whale watching boat returned to the Port of Everett, and the three-hour trips to scout migrating gray whales resumed.

But the crew waited until the last minute to start the season.

“We held off ordering clam chowder and other food and drink until two days before the first trip,” said Erin Gless, lead naturalist at the Anacortes-based firm. “We wanted to be extra sure it was really a go.”

The company is operating 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 vessel is running at 50% capacity. Masks are required on board. Instead of hiring an extra 15 to 20 hands, the company will stick with a core staff of about a dozen, Gless said.

“Things are moving forward,” she said. “But we all know things can change at any time.”

Normally, around this time, tourist venues are planning for an influx of summer visitors. This year many are still mulling whether to open.

People board the Island Explorer 4 in Everett. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after closing for several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People board the Island Explorer 4 in Everett. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after closing for several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In 2018 and 2019, tourism was Snohomish County’s second-largest economic driver, generating more than $1 billion in annual spending, according to county officials.

Figures for 2020 aren’t yet available. But last year, in the grip of the pandemic, the local tourist industry flatlined.

“I hope we never see a year like the last one,” said Annique Bennett, the Snohomish County strategic tourism coordinator.

“Folks are trying to adapt to the current environment and maintain their presence,” Bennett said. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in an uncertain time.”

Snohomish County’s fairs and festivals, along with businesses that depend on tourism, are struggling to regain their footing.

Organizers haven’t yet settled on whether the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe will take place. The fair, which spans 12 days and draws an average 350,000 visitors, was canceled last year.

Aboard the Island Explorer 4 whale-watching vessel in Everett, a sign reminds people to wear a mask and socially distance. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Aboard the Island Explorer 4 whale-watching vessel in Everett, a sign reminds people to wear a mask and socially 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 be making a public statement on any decision until May 1.”

The fair is accepting applications from vendors and entertainers. But with no guarantee of an in-person event, applicants are being advised to prepare an alternate, virtual presentation.

Phase 3 of the state’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan, which goes into effect March 22, could offer some wiggle room. It will permit 25% capacity for rodeos, motor sports and outdoor spectator sports and 50% capacity for indoor dining and inside entertainments.

Factoring in vaccines

Ticket sales, security and concession costs are normal concerns for fair and festival organizers. This year’s reckoning includes vaccine availability and models that predict herd immunity.

The Arlington Fly-In is on standby.

“One of our challenges is that we have a lot of people from out of state fly in,” said Barbara Tolbert, the event’s volunteer executive director, who is also the Arlington mayor.

The vaccine rollout, vaccination rate and “what’s happening with the (virus) variants” are part of the calculus, Tolbert said. Still, “we’re feeling pretty optimistic that we will have an August event.”

People keep their distance aboard the Island Explorer 4. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People keep their distance aboard the Island Explorer 4. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Many companies are taking a measured approach to reopening, waiting until the last minute to order supplies, add staff or renew an insurance policy or operating license.

Jerry Michalec, owner and lead guide at North Cascades River Expeditions, a small rafting company in Arlington, doesn’t plan on getting his feet wet unless it feels right.

“At this point, we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Michalec said.

Last year, he stayed home, skipping the entire the season.

What comes next might depend on his and his partner’s vaccine status, Michalec said.

“I’ve had both vaccinations, but my partner is younger,” he said. “As soon as she gets hers, we’re ready to go.”

Still, he’s delayed buying a company insurance policy, which is necessary to keep his business license current.

“Last year, I paid for insurance and the season never happened,” Michalec said. “It’s too early to be certain that things are going to work out.”

River rafting season has begun, but Michalec isn’t worried about a later start — if he decides to launch. This season promises plenty of pent-up demand and plenty of water.

“We had a big snowpack this year, so our rivers will run much longer this year,” Michalec said. “We’ll go all the way through mid-August.”

The Island Explorer 4 pulls outs of the Port of Everett Marina. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after closing for several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Island Explorer 4 pulls outs of the Port of Everett Marina. Island Adventures Whale Watching is back in operation after closing for several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cooped-up city-dwellers

At the Silver Cloud Inn on the Mukilteo waterfront, general manager Maia Kaleuha said she plans to hire four new employees — two for the front desk, two in housekeeping.

Last year, the pandemic forced staff reductions at the 70-room hotel.

“We’ve been running on such a tiny staff — four people is a huge addition,” Kaleuha said.

Last-minute reservations called in a day or two beforehand, and even same-day bookings, are common, she said.

“They’re excited, even if they’re just coming from Seattle,” Kaleuha said.

“We’ve seen a slow trickle of business travelers,” she said, although most visitors are from no more than 50 miles away. “People that haven’t traveled for a while tell us they feel so great.”

Hotel occupancy in Snohomish County approached 50% at the end of February, up from 40% averages last summer, according to the most recent Smith Travel Report, which tracks occupancy data. Normal hotel occupancy rates average about 80%.

As vaccination rates climb, Kaleuha and other hoteliers hope visitor and occupancy rates will show gains.

Snohomish County officials distributed $415,000 in federal relief money this spring to help reopen three of the county’s public facility districts: the Edmonds Center for the Arts, Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett and the Lynnwood Convention Center. Together, the three facilities are responsible for $78 million in annual economic impact in the county, and they support local hotels, restaurants and other businesses, county officials said.

The Boeing Future of Flight in Mukilteo reopened in February for the second time in 12 months, but the star of the show, the Boeing Factory Tour, remains closed. The tour of the company’s Everett assembly plant at Paine Field normally draws some 300,000 visitors a year. The Boeing Co. has not indicated when it might reinstate the tours.

The fate of the late Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, closed since May, is up in air. The Friends of Flying Heritage, the non-profit organization that operates the museum, did not respond to a request for comment. The parking lot at the Paine Field museum sat empty this week, but peering through the glass doors, nothing inside the display hall appeared to have been moved, including a North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber and other exhibits.

Spring cleaning

Ellerie Cain, the owner of Ellerie’s River Cottages, unfurled the welcome mat last week at her Darrington-area bed and breakfast after opting to stay closed last year.

“I’ve really missed my fabulous guests!” Cain said.

On Wednesday, she mowed the lawn, tidied the winter garden and made a grocery run to prepare for the arrival of the first guests in a year.

Unsure what to do this spring, a phone call from a Seattle couple hoping to escape the city convinced her to open the cottages.

“They were desperate,” Cain said.

“The egg lady will make some money because I’m buying eggs again,” she added.

Ditto for the grocery store, pizza parlor and coffee stand.

“It puts money back in everybody’s pocket,” she said.

But one Seattle couple doesn’t a tourist season make. Cain is crossing her fingers, hoping that the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, Darrington Timberbowl Rodeo and Summer Meltdown music festival will take place this year — events that help keep the cottages booked up.

Meanwhile, she figures there’s a boatload of city dwellers who have been cooped up, now yearning to “get out in the fresh air.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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