The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
A short story recently appeared in our local newspaper that provided an interesting look at how some Orcas Island residents are reacting to the coronavirus.
A small boat was seen approaching a dock near Eastsound, the island’s central village. A few locals watched as the boat approached and eventually docked. As the couple disembarked, a concerned citizen called the police and had them come out to make sure stay-at-home orders were not being violated and the island was not being invaded by mainlanders or others who could be carrying the virus. The police arrived, talked to the boaters, and discovered they were island residents living at a marina who had decided to visit the grocery store by boat.
In another case, a construction crew was working on a house (not ours) and a neighbor appeared and started to berate them. He assumed they had arrived from the mainland and accused them of potentially spreading the virus. He demanded the contractor’s contact information. It turned out the workers were island residents working safely and legally. The neighbor himself, however, had recently arrived from the mainland.
Needless to say, there are sensitivities. These cases are the outliers and don’t come as a surprise. Like anywhere, our little island has a variety of personalities. Most are reasonable, some are eccentric, a handful have a hard time minding their own business.
I can empathize. Living on an island feels like it’s possible to be hermetically sealed from the outside world. If we could stamp out the virus and live in a bubble for a while, we could feel normal again. We could have our own virus-free utopia. It’s been more than two weeks since a new case was reported on the island and the official count stands at eight positive test results and zero deaths. As much as I want this to be the final tally, I suspect it won’t.
As a state, Washington is still fighting the virus on all fronts. New cases and deaths are down significantly, but far from ending. The disease is still spreading. Our stay-at-home order has been extended until June 4. Most parks have reopened to a limited degree and outdoor jobs like landscaping and dog walking are now legal. You can now get large quantities of cocktails to-go or even delivered, which was a service I didn’t know I needed until now. It’s fascinating how constraints produce innovation.
Overall, I’ve been impressed with how the state has handled the pandemic so far and I believe that pacific northwest culture has played no small part. Citizens of Seattle, for example, are strangely conformist as a group. People wait at empty intersections for the crossing light to change. They create long lines for highway exits because no one wants to merge too late. I say “they” but it’s really “we”. I do these too.
People in and around the city seem hyper-aware of what is acceptable or not in a given situation. There is palpable social pressure to watch out for one another and do the right thing. People pay attention to the rules, facts, and evidence, and often behave accordingly. While it sometimes bleeds into sanctimony and self-righteousness that can feel oppressive, the do-good element of pacific northwest culture is part of what has kept me here for so long.
I think about Seattle or any large city’s approach to the pandemic being macro. A single case or death is part of a much bigger trend. For our little island, the pandemic is micro. One case can send shockwaves around the island and change behavior. And like Seattleites, we trust the facts, follow the rules, and have faith the local government is working to do the right thing. Islands are not often places for conformists, but we have our share.
Our county of islands, San Juan County, has tried to limit the flow of people to and from the mainland, but it’s mostly a social pressure campaign. Stern warnings were sent to residents forbidding them from traveling to the mainland for all but essential healthcare. People who have vacation homes on the island are being told to remain at their primary residence. With all lodging and Airbnbs closed by decree, there are few options available for people visiting the island overnight.
Being sealed is a nice idea, but it’s not at all realistic. Four ferries service the island every day. They are technically a state highway and are essential for bringing supplies and dollars to the island. There isn’t a practical way to prevent people from boarding the ferries, so people will continue to come, even for day trips.
Some have proposed ideas like testing every person who arrives or giving tourists some sort of badge or marker that indicates they are visiting from the mainland. These are brainstorm ideas that don’t survive serious scrutiny. A tourist badge. They’ll love that! Maybe it’s the residents who should wear them instead.
Orcas Island is a microcosm of the same debate that is raging nationally. Those tourists and visitors from the mainland are the bedrock of our local economy, virus and all. Our island is not a self-sustaining ecosystem. It requires a constant flow of people and supplies from other places. The hermetically sealed utopia could quickly become wasteland without the flow. I think most agree that safety is the priority and what will eventually allow the island to recover. We have the same questions as everyone else: when will it feel safe again?
Overall, Sachi and I have been fine and thankful. We’ve easily adjusted to a very limited social calendar, and honestly, that could endure once it’s all over. I’m sure the introvert in Sachi would appreciate it. Every meal we’ve had since March has been homemade and that, too, has been a feature we both enjoy. I have not had a haircut since February and that too will soon be homemade.
Our business is web-based and more impacted by the overall economy than quarantines and virus fears. We recently published a free COVID Communication Kit as a way to help organizations get back to work safely.
While my book Big Enough won’t be officially published until September, much of the work has already been done. Thankfully, the book’s message is appropriate for a post-pandemic market. I wonder how it would feel to have worked for a year on a book called Handshakes with Strangers or The Power of Group Hugs and then see the pandemic hit? Not good, I’m sure.
As the weather has improved, we’ve met occasionally with friends in outdoor and socially distant settings. Bonfires and construction sites are good for that. Non-work Zoom meetings fill the social gaps better than I would have guessed. We may have even grown closer to some folks as a result.
Overall, we remind ourselves that we have a lot to be thankful for. Our families in Hawaii and North Carolina have not been impacted and we try not to lose sight of that in the midst of so much chaos and misery. While we might not live in an island-sized bubble, we can create one around ourselves and make conscious choices about when to break the seal.