The uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic continues even with the unofficial arrival of summer on Monday.
While Spokane County was granted a variance last week to proceed to the next phase of reopening under Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to return to normal, “nonessential travel” and many large-scale outdoor activities won’t be permitted for at least several weeks.
With many states urging their residents to continue to stay close to home to prevent the virus’s spread and the first step of reopening focused on retail and the service industry, visions of summer vacation and travel aren’t clear.
“Travel’s going to look different for a bit,” said Anthony Anton, chief executive officer of the Washington Hospitality Association.
It’s going to look so different that, for the first time in the past 20 years, AAA has not issued a travel forecast for the long Memorial Day weekend.
When people do start traveling, the agency estimates, it’ll be to destinations closer to home, with many travelers choosing day trips and drives over air travel, for now.
That means families stuck indoors may be looking at safe recreation options nearby. On Saturday, if conditions hold, they may have an option just across the Idaho border.
Silverwood and Boulder Beach
Families looking to spend a day at the theme and waterpark north of Coeur d’Alene will have to pick a day to reserve their spot starting next weekend, part of the destination’s efforts to limit people at the turnstiles while also not turning any visitor away.
“We know people from all over come here, and we don’t want that to happen,” said Jordan Carter, director of marketing at the park that plans to open Saturday. “It’s just a bad guest experience.”
Other procedures will look different for those twirling on the Spin Cycle, losing their voices on Timber Terror or splashing down Avalanche Mountain. Dining areas will have tables spread out to promote 6 feet of social distancing, and lines may appear longer because families will be asked to stand apart from other guests. Employees will be wearing face-shielding masks made of copper to prevent viral transmission, Carter said, and to prevent the need to exchange cash the park will allow guests to load wristbands with money that can be used for food and other items in the park.
“You can give it to your kids, and you’re not having them carry a credit or debit card around,” Carter said. “There’s a lot of perks and advantages to the wristbands.”
With larger-scale theme parks such as Disneyland and the larger Six Flags destinations not announcing their plans to reopen, Carter said Silverwood is aware it will be among the largest parks open for business with Gov. Brad Little’s consent later this month. Park officials have been in contact with counterparts at Dollywood in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday that theme parks could reopen, and Boise’s Roaring Springs, a water park also planning to open Saturday.
“A lot of people are looking to us, and we kind of have the mindset that we’re going to go above and beyond what we’re required to do to keep people safe,” Carter said.
That audience will include owners of some smaller water-based attractions across the border.
The beginning of June usually means diehard swimmers have been logging laps in Spokane’s Witter Aquatic Center for weeks. But that early season opening was one of several programs canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s unclear when area pools might open again for those hoping to take a dip.
“We’re knee-deep in the planning phase right now,” said Fianna Dickson, spokeswoman for the city’s parks department, last week.
Though there’s water in the pool at Witter, that’s simply part of the process of protecting the pool and deck from wear and tear during the spring months. Like nonessential travel, public pools are part of the third phase of Inslee’s reopening plan in Washington. Even when they’re allowed to open the gates again, distancing rules will likely limit attendance even further.
“It’s a tough thing to do, especially if your patrons are young,” said Mike Stone, director of Spokane Valley parks.
Spokane Valley may be in a better position to monitor visitors if and when it reopens, Stone said, because its pools are rectangular and have few blind corners. Aquatic centers owned by the city of Spokane and Spokane County have features that include slides and splash pads. Spokane County will not open its Northside Aquatics Center this summer due to ongoing construction delayed by the pandemic, parks director Doug Chase said.
“We are projected to be finishing construction enhancements and improvements on the pool up there, very likely mid to late September and not sooner,” he said.
The improvements include heated splash pads, new shade areas on the deck and water slides.
If it opens this summer, the Southside Aquatics Center likely will open well below the 50% threshold that Inslee laid out in his reopening plan due to the distancing required not just in the water, but on the deck and in common areas as well.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there is no evidence to suggest the virus can be transmitted through the water, especially with the levels of chlorine used to disinfect public pools and water parks, pools do have several public areas and surfaces that could become contaminated and require cleaning.
Guidance issued by the Washington Department of Health earlier this month suggested pool capacities of less than 50 people, including staff. That would be less than 10% of the capacity at the Southside Aquatics Center, Chase said.
“Our initial work would suggest we may be able to accommodate as much as 150 visitors,” Chase said, but in Phase 3 that would still require approval from the Spokane Regional Health District, and that conversation has not occurred.
Stone said he planned to present financial and operational plans to the Spokane Valley City Council in June. He and Chase said they’re looking at operational plans that could allow swimming for a four- or six-week period, but even those projections are up in the air and dependent upon no new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in Spokane.
Local park officials are looking at the reaction to news out of Boise that it was closing its public pools for the entirety of the summer, a decision that drew criticism as other surrounding communities kept the possibility of public swimming alive.
“At the end of the day, you want to make the decision that keeps your community safe,” Stone said.
Local parks aren’t alone in waiting for more guidance from the governor’s office on what can reopen safely.
Parks, camping, tourist attractions near your front door
The second phase of reopening allows for camping groups of up to five people, but the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission wasn’t ready this week to discuss what outdoor recreation would look like on state lands that opened for day use only May 5.
“We’re still working through what camping will look like once we reopen,” Anna Gill, communications director for the commission, wrote in an email Thursday. “I expect to have more information to share next week.”
If the regional response is any indication, news on outdoor camping on state lands could be coming sooner rather than later. Oregon State Parks announced last week that limited camping will resume June 9.
Indoor lodging also will be there when nonessential travel resumes, Anton said. Hotels were essential businesses that could remain open during Inslee’s stay-home order, but their income is based on several groups of travelers, including those on business and attending conventions and other large-scale events. Those types of travelers may not be seeking lodging anytime soon, Anton said, but the industry was gearing up to meet the demand of families stuck at home.
“You’re going to have some really good deals if you’re an individual consumer on vacation,” Anton said of the possibility of visiting hotels once nonessential travel is approved, perhaps later this summer. “Some people are talking about this being the summer of the road trip, and I think there’s some truth to that.”
The lodging industry is hopeful that’s the case. The American Hotel and Lodging Association estimates that 45% of the state’s 190,000 workers employed in the hotel industry, including the supply chain, have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Occupancy rates at the nation’s hotels are hovering around 30%.
When travel resumes, Anton said, visitors should take commonsense precautions upon returning to rooms, including making abundant use of soap and hand sanitizer in rooms and lobbies. He anticipates many hotels will switch to automatic check-in procedures in order to limit lobby contact.
It may take several weeks as Washington continues to navigate the phased process of reopening, but Anton said he believed the demand was there for families to safely leave their houses and find vacation opportunities within Washington’s borders.
“Maybe filling a large stadium with a concert isn’t an option,” he said. “But maybe hitting a lake, hitting another town or getting down to wine country is. It’s just a redirection of that spendable dollar.”
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