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; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

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