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As tourists come back, tourist towns also need the workers to come back

tourist towns
Posted at 2:03 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 16:31:00-04

This pandemic has been like a fog, a cloud, over what we once considered to be normal. But as we move through it, people are re-discovering what life will be like when it clears.

“I mean we, here, don’t consider us America. We joke when we’re going to Costco, ‘Hey, we’re going to America today, do you need anything?’" said Farhad Ghatan, mayor of Friday Harbor, Washington.

Friday Harbor is an island town near Canada. Here, Ghatan’s responsibilities go beyond entertaining the guests at his bed and breakfast, the Friday Harbor Grand.

“It’s great to be able to make a comeback after a tough year, but it’s almost pretty tiring," he said. “We had one hospitalization. We have a population of 7,500, approximately 7,500 on this island.”

San Juan County, which is made up of multiple islands--including San Juan, Island, which is where Friday Harbor is located--is reporting five hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

The mayor says strict measures, like an early mask mandate, kept COVID-19 cases from climbing and the town’s vaccination rate is more than 80 percent, as tourists flock by ferry here each day.

“I’ve had zero openings since the beginning of June, and I probably won’t have any until the beginning of September," Ghatan said of his B&B.

As the US-Canada border is expected to open later this summer, Ghatan has mixed fillings.

“I have mixed opinions on that. I know business will go down because people will now have options of going across the border,” he said.

Most visitors to Friday Harbor are Americans.

“The exchange rate doesn’t make it appealing to Canadians to come here," Ghatan said.

On this island, keeping up with traffic from the mainland is hard enough.

“It’s ridiculous. Right now, I’m turning five to six people a day," Ghatan said.

Washington State has allowed restaurants to go full capacity, but Debbie Rishel’s restaurant, Downriggers, still isn’t at 100 percent.

“Right now, actually, I could have more of my restaurant, but I don’t have enough people upfront to do it," she said.

Finding enough help isn’t just a problem for a remote island like this.

“Not all of them have the luxury of having a full staff right now, so they’re only open part-time or five days a week," explained San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Becki Day.

More than 90 percent of chambers of commerce nationwide say worker shortages are hurting their economies. Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Vermont are among the states struggling the most, according to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Experts say a shrinking number of working-aged people could mean this shortage will continue for years, even beyond a pandemic recovery.

“My crews are already tired, and it’s not even the summer," Rishel said.

Step into Irene Herring’s coffee shop, San Juan Coffee Roasting Company, you will feel the pace of a busy season, lost in many tourist towns last year.

"We kind of jump in with both feet," she said.

But for Herring, COVID and coffee do not define her path through the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she’s doing fine now but will be selling her shop after 32 years, in order to enjoy this edge of America, which is her home.

As many work to charter a path beyond the limits of a pandemic, she says do not forget to go in the direction of what you value the most.

“A time like that that has lasted as long as it has, it's nice to have something that brings you some pleasure," Herring said.

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