Dee Hatch delivers a food order to a waiting customer at Sky Deli in Skykomish, the last town on U.S. 2 before Stevens Pass. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dee Hatch delivers a food order to a waiting customer at Sky Deli in Skykomish, the last town on U.S. 2 before Stevens Pass. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Even in U.S. 2 towns with 0 virus cases, rural economy reels

East Snohomish County had just weathered a bad winter storm, when COVID-19 gutted the recreation-based economy.

Folks on U.S. 2 tend to be ready for whatever Mother Nature may throw at them.

Yet COVID-19 did not arrive like a bad snowstorm or high water.

“When there’s flooding, we know what we need to do,” Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita said. “The community resilience and the coming together is something that’s in our blood. But this is unprecedented.”

The coronavirus pandemic is another hit for the rural towns and businesses along U.S. 2 that just weathered a paralyzing winter storm in January. As far as public health officials are aware, the virus itself has not claimed any lives here. In fact, in King and Snohomish counties, the only remaining outposts with no positive tests as of Tuesday had addresses in Index, Baring and Skykomish.

But the presence of COVID-19 is felt in the absence of skiers, snowboarders and hikers who power the local economy.

On a beautiful spring weekend in late March, cooped-up urbanites had stampeded toward the outdoors along U.S. 2 and elsewhere.

Patties flew off the grill at a Sultan roadside burger shack faster than ever before in the small-town business’ seven-year history, said Marc Vick, who helped serve the horde. Customers flocked toward the drive-thru and walk-up windows at Vick’s for hours.

The mass exodus of city dwellers overwhelmed small towns and packed popular trails. Two days later came Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order and the end of dine-in operations. Officials also closed nearly all access to outdoor recreation, as part of a statewide campaign to promote social distancing and slow the spread of the virus.

The few businesses that have managed to stay open have become lifelines for locals. Vick’s burger shack has continued to thrive. In fact, he said business is up almost 50%.

“It’s literally almost embarrassing,” Vick said. “I feel so bad for the other businesses in town.”

As other restaurants struggled to adapt to takeout and curbside dining, he became one of the few spots in town left to grab a bite. Other rural businesses haven’t fared as well.

About 10 minutes east on U.S. 2 in Gold Bar, ski and snowboard shops have temporarily closed their doors.

“You’ve got a small town in a rural setting, it’s not really the kind of place where there’s a lot of social interaction,” said Mayor Bill Clem.

If you live in Gold Bar, Clem said, you’re probably not gathering in large groups too often anyway, and you probably already had supplies stored up. Social distancing isn’t much of an adjustment. It’s the economic impact that’s hitting residents hard.

Rodger Pestana carries out an order at Vick’s Burger Shack in Sultan. He says business is booming during the shutdown. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Rodger Pestana carries out an order at Vick’s Burger Shack in Sultan. He says business is booming during the shutdown. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

About two-thirds of the restaurants in town have shut down because they weren’t able to support themselves doing delivery or takeout, Clem said. Prospectors, a saloon-like diner frequented by outdoor enthusiasts, is still open for takeout. There aren’t many brick-and-mortar businesses in Gold Bar. Many workers within the city limits are self-employed, contractors or able to work remotely.

“What happens is we live in an amazingly beautiful area,” Clem said. “So it definitely attracts people who don’t have to commute.”

As of Tuesday, Gold Bar, population 2,300, had fewer than five confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Twenty miles eastward, the town of Skykomish calls itself the gateway to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It’s known for abundant outdoor activities in all seasons — from skiing and river rafting to rock climbing and hiking.

To passing drivers, the town may be just a quick blur of a landmark off U.S. 2, but it’s hard to miss the Sky Deli on the shoulder.

Earlier this year, deli owner Steve Larner said the town lost power for 16 days in the storm. Most of those days fell on weekends, normally his busiest time.

Skykomish residents have a reputation for coming together in the face of an emergency.

In January, Larner kept the deli open until 2 a.m. for stranded travelers, trapped on U.S. 2 by feet of snow and over 40 downed trees. Some residents opened their homes to snowbound drivers.

But in this pandemic, Larner’s partner, Sydni Loftus, said social distancing guidelines mean their response looks different.

“We can’t come together at all,” she said.

Normally, skiers and snowboarders headed to and from Stevens Pass make up about 80% of the deli’s business, Larner said. They reduced some employees’ hours, but stayed afloat by offering takeout and basic grocery items. There’s also a huge demand for beer and wine.

Looking toward summer, Loftus said Pacific Crest Trail hikers are the deli’s “second bread and butter.” But without any word on when trails could open back up, they’re beginning to consider what a hiker-free season could mean for their business.

Winter brings the skiers, but summer is by the far the busiest season, Skykomish Mayor Henry Sladek said.

“I think all of us thought (the stay-home order) would be done in a month,” he said. “Now we’re all concerned. If it gets into June or later, that really impacts us.”

Many east county businesses, and not just restaurants, depend on outdoor tourism, too. Anthony Vega lives just east of Skykomish and owns Chinook ATV, an all terrain vehicle tour company. He operates mostly on Department of Natural Resources land, which closed to the public in late March.

“It’s completely devastating,” Vega said. “Every phone call I get is a cancellation now.”

His business, like many others, is still reeling from the snowstorm earlier this year.

“We were barely climbing out the hole that (storm) created for our businesses, and then this comes along,” he said.

All along U.S. 2 between Everett and Stevens Pass last week, signs read: “Stay home / Limit travel / Save lives”

The ski slopes at Stevens Pass are empty because of the COVID-19 quarantine order. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The ski slopes at Stevens Pass are empty because of the COVID-19 quarantine order. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

But some couldn’t resist the sunshine and took to the outdoors anyway. Trailhead parking lots had closed, but cars pulled over along the highway. At Stevens Pass, over a dozen vehicles had dodged orange cones to park in the resort’s lot.

For Greg Johnson from the town of Plain in Chelan County, hiking up the slopes and skiing back down is an annual tradition.

He acknowledged ski touring isn’t permitted right now. The sun and soft snow proved too enticing, however, he said.

“I’m going to get shamed for this for the next month,” he said.

Evan Emerson and Shaun Davis, both from the west side of the mountains, sipped White Claws in the ski area parking lot. They were also looking to earn their turns.

“I feel like they’re blocking nature for us,” Davis said. “I’m not trying to be a bad person by being out here. We just want to get outside.”

Inside the resort, ticket booth windows were shuttered. Despite signs barring uphill travel, most runs were covered in tracks.

In Skykomish, the mayor said what might be bad for business is best for public health right now.

“The folks up here know we’re isolated by the nature of our location and now the fact that business has slowed down and there’s less strangers or visitors coming off the highway,” Sladek said. “We feel fairly well isolated.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439;

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Fraudulent 1999 Pokémon cards Iosif “Joe” Bondarchuk and Anthony Curcio sold to an undercover law enforcement purchaser in July 2023. (Photo provided by the DOJ USAO Southern District of New York)
Counterfeit Pokémon cards, a $2M scheme, and a getaway by inner tube

It was the latest stranger-than-fiction caper tied to ex-Monroe star athlete Anthony Curcio, accused of forging mint grades for rare cards.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Suspected DUI crash injures trooper on I-5 north in Lynnwood

WSP spokesperson said two suspected impaired drivers have crashed into a state trooper in the past 24 hours.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Police: Man shot at ex-girlfriend, child in Mountlake Terrace apartment

Officers were investigating the Seattle man, 22, for first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and third-degree malicious mischief.

Former President Donald Trump exits the courthouse after being found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York, on Thursday, May 30, 2024. Trump has been convicted of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened his ascent to the White House in 2016, part of a scheme that prosecutors described as a fraud on the American people. He is the first American president to be declared a felon. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Trump convicted on all counts to become America’s first felon president

Twelve New Yorkers delivered their verdict in the case against Donald J. Trump. He was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with a payment to a porn star.

The view of Mountain Loop Mine out the window of a second floor classroom at Fairmount Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
After months of controversy, mine’s Everett gravel yard is for sale

In April, a county judge ordered OMA Construction to stop all work, next door to Fairmount Elementary School. Now, the yard is on the market.

Traffic moves along Highway 526 in front of Boeing’s Everett Production Facility on Nov. 28, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Boeing agrees to pay over $11.5M in back pay to employees

Nearly 500 workers received back wages, in what Washington regulators call the largest-ever settlement of its kind in state history.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 closure between Everett and Marysville delayed by weather

The key alternative route to I-5 was slated to be fully closed overnight Saturday. Now, June 8 is being circled as the date.

Benson Boone (Photo provided by AEG Presents)
Taylor Swift taps Monroe HS grad Benson Boone to open London show

Boone, 21, has become a global pop star since his “American Idol” stint in 2021. “Beautiful Things” is the biggest song in the world.

News logo for use with stories about Mill Creek in Snohomish County, WA.
Mill Creek man accused of crashing into taxi in Seattle, killing woman

King County prosecutors charged Aboubacarr Singhateh with vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault.

Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peeks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
State OKs Marysville plan with schools, jobs on chopping block

The revised plan would mean the loss of dozens of jobs and two schools — still to be identified — in a school district staring down a budget crunch.

The Trestle’s junction with I-5 is under evaluation (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Here’s your chance to give feedback on the US 2 trestle and its future

Often feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and on shaky ground? So is the trestle. A new $17 million study seeks solutions for the route east of Everett.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.