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Sports >  Outdoors

Outdoor clubs, guides consider whether to mandate vaccines in light of COVID-19 surge

A slab of granite as seen on the Selkirk Crest on Aug. 8.  (Eli Francovich)
A slab of granite as seen on the Selkirk Crest on Aug. 8. (Eli Francovich)

In late August, the Nepalese government ordered that all visitors entering the Everest region of Nepal must be vaccinated. While the mechanism by which the government will enforce the mandate is not clear, it raises a parallel question for U.S. outdoor guides and clubs as the COVID-19 delta variant surges.

To mandate a vaccine, or not?

“Pretty tricky for sure,” said Dustin Aherin, the owner and operator of Idaho River Adventures, an outfitter on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. “There is not an industrywide system set up.”

Instead, guiding outfits have, by and large, tackled the question on their own and as they see fit. In Aherin’s case, he didn’t ask guests about their vaccination status, nor require his staff to have the vaccine, although all his staff were voluntarily vaccinated.

“What I told my guests was we will all have discussions and make sure nobody causes a problem or looks down on somebody if they put a face covering on or if they want to protect themselves to a higher level than the group is,” Aherin said.

ROW Adventures, based in Coeur d’Alene, runs trips worldwide. During the 2021 season they did not require guides or guests be vaccinated, said founder and owner Peter Grubb. However, starting in 2022 they will require proof of vaccination.

“We may lose some business due to this, and perhaps a few guides will choose to work elsewhere,” he said in an email. “So be it. The right thing to do, for the safety and health of our team and everyone that travels with us, is to require the vaccine.”

The Mountain Bureau, a climbing guiding service based in Washington’s Methow Valley, has adopted a similar policy and will require guests and guides be vaccinated. RMI Expeditions, which runs mountaineering trips on Mount Rainier and worldwide including on Mount Everest, did not respond to a request for comment.

Grubb emphasized there is “no industry wide anything” when it comes to vaccine mandates.

“Adventure travel will be all over the map,” he said.

The question becomes more complicated for guiding services that operate on national park or Forest Service lands or rivers. President Joe Biden signed Sept. 9 an executive order that mandates all employers with more than 100 workers must require COVID-19 vaccination or test for the virus weekly. The order affects about 80 million Americans.

Biden is also requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government – with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.

In August, the National Park Service ordered that masks be worn in national park-owned buildings, including ones leased to concessionaires. So far, a similar order has not been made regarding vaccination status. Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, which has several fishing guide concessionaires, did not respond to a request for comment.

In August, U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, informed USDA employees, contractors and visitors they would be asked to fill out a certification of vaccination form. Employees who are not fully vaccinated ”or decline to respond must wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a weekly or twice-weekly screening test requirement for those onsite, and are subject to governmentwide restrictions on official travel.”

On Sept. 10, the USDA announced it was “awaiting guidance from the White House” on how to implement the new federal vaccine rules.

Meanwhile, two Spokane-area clubs have curtailed in-person events and are considering vaccine mandates for upcoming programs.

Spokane Audubon is not conducting in-person meetings, said spokeswoman Madonna Luers.

“The only field trip we’ve got scheduled (a pelagic birding trip to the coast led by Bea and Jim Harrison next month) requires vaccinations of a limited number of participants,” she said in an email. “Any other more local field trips we come up with will likely not include carpooling, more of meet-at-site and socially distance outside. These are the standard recommendations from state & national Audubon, too.”

The Spokane Mountaineers are considering how to approach the next year, said club president Matt Jeffries.

“Currently, the organization’s leadership is discussing what approach we need to take for our programs and activities that will be taking place in the next 12 months,” he said in an email. “In light of the contagious properties of Delta and whatever variations follow, some level of a vaccine mandate may be needed to ensure safety for instructors and participants.”

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