Whale watchers social distance as they get set for a trip on the Island Explorer 5 in Anacortes recently. Island Adventures, a whale watching company, mostly canceled its Everett-based gray whale season. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Whale watchers social distance as they get set for a trip on the Island Explorer 5 in Anacortes recently. Island Adventures, a whale watching company, mostly canceled its Everett-based gray whale season. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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Tourism takes a vacation, and many businesses are hurting

With people staying home, do you scale back activities and events — or do you close?

EVERETT — “Hey, Jim, can I have my old job back?”

Jim Grant, the owner of Northway Aviation at Paine Field, has been fielding those phone calls from commercial airline pilots this year.

The Everett flight school offers flying lessons, small airplane rentals and scenic flights.

“A lot of our flight instructors moved on to the airlines,” said Grant. With the travel industry now in a slump, though, they’re are out of jobs and looking for work.

Grant expects more such calls this fall. On Monday, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines notified the state of plans to lay off 1,583 Washington employees beginning Oct. 1.

He couldn’t afford to rehire them even if he wanted to. Business is down 70%, he said.

Tourists eager to rent a single-engine Cessna, or see Mount Rainier or the San Juan Islands from above, are nowhere to be found this summer.

Plane rentals and scenic excursions, which account for a quarter of the company’s annual revenue, “have come to a complete halt,” Grant said.

Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation at Paine Field in Everett, sees more planes on the ground than in the air this year. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation at Paine Field in Everett, sees more planes on the ground than in the air this year. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Northway Aviation is one of hundreds of local businesses that depend on visitors for income. But with travel bans and COVID-19 spiking, many tourists are staying home.

In June, Snohomish County entered Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 recovery plan, which allows outdoor activities such as camping, hiking and kayaking.

Businesses that depend on a tourist clientele have had to make hard choices: operate under the state’s strict guidelines and scale back activities — or close for the season.

Companies with their doors open describe keeping a daily watch on the governor’s office for added restrictions and rollbacks, a consequence of resurgent infections.

In recent years, tourism has been Snohomish County’s second-largest economic driver, generating more than $1 billion in annual spending, according to county officials.

A big slice of that comes from visitors attached to a wedding, family gathering, reunion, conference or convention, local venues say.

Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation at Paine Field in Everett, shows off a room with photos and the shirttails of pilots who have earned their licenses. The business is struggling to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation at Paine Field in Everett, shows off a room with photos and the shirttails of pilots who have earned their licenses. The business is struggling to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

While they’re here, they want to shoot the rapids, scout Orcas or watch a Boeing 777 get its composite wings.

Boeing Future of Flight and the Boeing Factory Tour at Paine Field attract more than 300,000 visitors each year, including some 80,000 tourists from outside the U.S.

“About 27% of our Boeing tour tickets were sold to international guests in 2019,” Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Kowal said.

On March 9, the Future of Flight closed and the Boeing tour suspended operations. There are no immediate plans to reopen.

Unconventional donation

The Lynnwood Convention Center has been temporarily closed since March.

In the face of COVID-19, “businesses have had to come to a near screeching halt or drastically change the way they are running their business, much like the Lynnwood Convention Center,” Sara Blayne, the center’s general manager, said in a news release.

The convention center recently emptied its pantry and donated 550 pounds of food to the Mill Creek Community Food Bank.

During a normal week, the center’s kitchen would be bustling, with culinary staff “busily preparing dishes for conventions and meetings,” she said.

“While COVID-19 has had a major impact on our business, we looked at the food donation as an opportunity to find and do good during this unprecedented time,” Blayne said.

The center is taking bookings for next year, but there are no plans to reopen, until the “governor says we can,” Blayne said.

Across the county, hotel occupancy, normally 80% or more this time of year, hovered between 40% to 45% in July, according to a recent Smith Travel Research Report.

And while commercial airline service resumed at the Paine Field terminal last week, just three daily flights are offered, down from 24 arrivals and 24 departures a year ago.

Ellerie Cain, the owner of Ellerie’s River Cottages near Darrington, decided not to open her bed and breakfast retreat this summer.

“The wedding venues and family reunions are not taking place. That’s what my season caters to,” said Cain, who operates four cottages near the North Fork Stillaguamish River and Darrington.

Social distancing would have been easy to maintain on the acre-plus resort, she said.

“I started getting calls from my attorney and insurance agent saying, ‘Don’t you dare open,’” Cain said.

She misses her guests, but the potential liability is too great, she said.

Nyal Walker, a Farmer’s Insurance agent in Marysville, has talked to business owners worried that they might be sued by a customer who claims they contracted the coronavirus while visiting their business.

“Being held liable is a real concern,” said Walker. “Are they responsible or not? Until it’s tested in court, we have no idea how they would respond.”

‘We lost our entire season’

Everett’s gray whale watching season never surfaced this year, said Erin Gless, lead naturalist with Island Adventures Whale Watching.

From March to May, the company’s three-tiered, 6,000-square-foot boat docks at the Port of Everett for twice-daily gray whale viewing excursions.

During the spring 2019 season, the vessel, which carries up to 150 people, made 100 whale watching trips and ferried 5,000 passengers, Gless said.

“This year we sailed three tours and boarded 100 visitors,” Gless said. “We lost our entire gray whale season.”

Whale watching tours resumed in June from the company’s Anacortes dock.

Summer is peak viewing season for humpback, orca and minke whales.

“We’re following the same guidelines as restaurants, and running at 50% capacity. Masks are required,” Gless said.

Island Adventures now operates one trip a day, with no more than 75 passengers.

“Our financial folks told us that if we open in June, we could try to make 10% to 20% of our normal revenue,” Gless said.

“We’ve hired zero staff this year. We’ve got maybe eight people on staff, compared to 30.”

The season is also putting a damper on some whale research, said Gless.

With fewer tours and fewer eyes on the water, whale researchers aren’t getting the normal flow of information, she said.

“A really big part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (industry group) is taking pictures and sharing them with researchers,” she said.

‘Dead in the water’

Jerry Michalec, owner and lead guide at North Cascades River Expeditions in Arlington, opted to stay dry this year.

“We’re dead in the water,” Michalec said.

Michalec doesn’t like the idea of requiring clients to wear a mask and a helmet while river rafting.

“It’s dangerous to wear both,” he said.

“We’ve had a couple of calls here and there, but we’re saying no,” Michalec said. “We’re in a position where we can weather this for a year.”

Two Snohomish companies, Balloon Depot and Snohomish Balloon Ride offer hot air balloon rides from Harvey Airfield.

Both say they’re trying to stay afloat.

“We were completely shut down, with no business at all from the middle of March,” said Balloon Depot’s owner, Jay Woodward.

By mid-July, Balloon Depot would have normally chalked up 50 or more flights. This year, the number stood at about a half a dozen or so, Woodward said.

“We’re a seasonal business and this is our peak season,” he said.

Masks are required, temperatures are checked pre-flight and passenger numbers have been lowered at both companies to maintain social distancing.

Balloons that can accommodate 10 people now carry six. Balloons that carry six people now carry four.

Woodward worries the season could be cut even shorter if COVID-19 cases mount and the governor imposes tighter restrictions.

On the upside, local folks are filling up the flight manifest, said Bob Romanesch, owner of Snohomish Balloon Ride.

“They’ve been really supportive,” Romanesch said. “We used to do half locals, half tourists. This year it’s all locals.”

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

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