Usually businesses at the eastern end of Skagit County look forward to June, which brings an influx of tourism along the winding path of the Skagit River.
Not so in the era of COVID-19.
“Tourism is so important to the eastern valley and there are going to be a lot of businesses that are going to be hit hard this year,” said Ashley Minnerath, site manager of Cascadian Farm between Rockport and Marblemount.
For much of the past three months, ice cream cones could not be served, wine could not be sampled, shops and visitor centers could not be entered, and hundreds of camping and lodging reservations have been canceled. Signs and barricades have steered visitors away from some trailheads and attractions usually accessible along the recreation-rich route.
Although Skagit County was recently approved to move into the second of the state’s four phases for reopening, some say the damage has been done.
“It’s not going to be a good year for anybody upriver here,” said Glacier Peak Resort & Winery Manager Kevin Salter.
Businesses that are open are limited in what they can do and have seen a fraction of their usual customers.
That may be partially because travel has been restricted and advised against, and partially because would-be travelers are afraid of the new coronavirus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are afraid to go anywhere,” said Eleanor Ovenell of Ovenell’s Heritage Inn & Log Cabins.
Whatever the reasons, fewer visitors than usual are traveling Highway 20 in the eastern part of the county.
The route, including the Washington Pass portion of the state’s Cascade Loop Scenic Byway, is the primary way to access remote businesses and recreation areas.
“Business is slow right now just because there’s not people driving over the pass like they have in the past. Traffic is quite a bit less than normal,” said Dawn Koenig, office administrator for Cascadian Farm. “I believe that this pandemic just has gotten a lot of people afraid to go anywhere until we get to Phase 4.”
The lack of customers coming through has been felt.
“We are open and we do have some business, but it’s like a quarter of what it should be,” Ovenell said. “It’s very much down. People aren’t traveling very much.”
The 440-mile Cascade Loop regarded as “Washington’s Ultimate Road Trip” usually brings scores of travelers into the area once the pass is cleared of snow.
This year, the state Department of Transportation opened the section of highway bridging Skagit and Okanogan counties unceremoniously. The gates swung open May 12, but no one was invited and the opening wasn’t announced.
“Typically, there is a significant amount of anticipation and celebration for this occasion. However, given the current COVID-19 public health crisis ... the reopening of the highway comes at a time when non-essential travel is restricted,” Department of Transportation spokesperson Jordan Longacre said.
The state agency mentioned in an April 28 newsletter that snow-clearing work was expected to take two more weeks. Then, the North Cascades Highway web page was quietly updated to show the highway was open.
“We did not publicize it as we usually do,” Longacre said.
Locals were disappointed.
“We didn’t even get to give cinnamon rolls out up at the pass this year,” said Salter, who took over the business now called Glacier Peak from the late Tootsie Clark. He said he had promised to continue Tootsie’s longstanding practice of offering the sweet baked goods at the annual opening.
“I’m sure they didn’t want the congregation up there, but it’s a tradition,” Salter said.
About two weeks after the highway opened, the North Cascades National Park Service Complex opened its day-use areas. And on Friday, its campgrounds were opened.
“We are working to increase access to the park in a phased approach,” a news release states.
The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has limited access to trails along the highway and has posted signs at parking lots and trailheads urging visitors to adhere to social distancing recommendations while recreating.
Hiking, sightseeing and water recreation are allowed at certain facilities. The federal agencies that manage land along the Cascade Loop ask visitors to avoid crowded areas and to come prepared for limited services along the route.
“Pass open, limited travel services,” a Department of Transportation sign flashes just before the community of Newhalem.
Despite limitations, there’s still a lot to see including jagged peaks, glacier-fed lakes, flowing streams and waterfalls, flowers in bloom and wildlife.
During the sunny, 80-degree weather of May 29, the cars of a few ambitious hikers were lined up at some trailheads within National Park and National Forest areas. The Rainy Pass and East Bank Ross Lake trailheads were among some of the busiest, and dozens of vehicles stopped at the popular Diablo Lake overlook.
Still, that hasn’t made a significant difference for some businesses along the route.
“Compared to last year at this time our business count and revenue is down really significantly,” Minnerath said.
Popular attractions remain off limits due to concerns about the pandemic, particularly in areas where people live.
Seattle City Light has blocked off access to Newhalem and Diablo, where 26 workers who operate the utility’s three Skagit River dams reside with their families, spokesperson Julie Moore said. That means some popular trails, the Gorge Powerhouse and Diablo Dam are off limits. The town store is also closed.
Moore said that’s an effort to comply with the state’s restrictions, protect Seattle City Light employees, and prevent travelers from stopping at locations where restrooms and other services are not available.
A bit farther east, the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake is closed, with its programs canceled through August, and there are no boat rides with Seattle City Light’s Skagit Tours on the lake through at least July.
With restrictions persisting and reopening moving slowly, several east county businesses are weary about summer sales.
“I anticipate that our sales and visitor count are going to be down significantly from usual years,” Minnerath said.
At Glacier Peak, the winery tasting room had to close and the restaurant had to move to takeout only as state requirements for managing the pandemic were handed down in March.
Salter said with those limitations and 700 camping, cabin and RV rental reservations canceled, he had to lay off about three-quarters of his staff.
He described business in May as “horrible” and said unless things take a drastic turn this summer, he’s not sure the usually year-round business can operate through winter 2020.
“I’d love the business to pick up, but I don’t think it’s going to,” Salter said. “I think maybe we’ll get a couple nice weekends and that’s it.”
In an effort to bring in enough money to cover the bills, the resort has offered a steep discount for monthlong renters.
“It’s going to be a rough year,” Salter said. “I’m trying to offset the mortgage payments and power bills.”
Minnerath and Koenig said the Cascadian Farm stand has also made some changes.
“This year looks a lot different than typical years due to COVID: We are not offering espressos or ice cream cones this year or any baked goods,” Koenig said. “We are offering ice cream in pints to go.”
The stand is allowing one customer inside at a time, and asking that they use hand sanitizer provided at the door and wear a face mask. Tape placed on the walkway indicates where customers can stand six feet apart while waiting in line, and picnic tables aren’t out because visitors aren’t encouraged to congregate.
The farm stand has also stocked its shelves with more grocery items than usual from other organic food companies.
“For us, thinking about opening our seasonal business this year, our No. 1 prior is the safety of our customers and employees,” Minnerath said. “Our second priority is to provide a space where our customers can purchase local and organic groceries and items from local vendors.”
Despite the challenges the pandemic has posed, these and other businesses along Highway 20 in east Skagit County remain prepared to serve.
From the Lyman Tavern to the Birdsview Brewery to many eateries in the town of Concrete, to-go orders are available at existing drive-thrus, new takeout windows and through curbside service, according to the company websites.
And in addition to their goods, they have beautiful scenery to offer and an abundance of clean, fresh air.
“We’re out in the country. There’s not a lot of people, there’s a lot of room for social distancing as they call it, and the units are quite large,” Ovenell said of the lodging on her property. “We are out in the fresh air and we clean the cabins and sanitize the cabins.”
Slater said the Glacier Peak property offers the same, with 60 acres along the Skagit River, shower facilities now cleaned three times each day, and homemade wine and apple pie whiskey for sale on site.