Orcas Island: We Must Close to Visitors

The following is an open letter to my home, Orcas Island, in San Juan County, in Washington State. I’m writing this as our first confirmed COVID-19 case was just announced on Orcas. Written with love. Please share if you are moved to.

Dear Neighbors,

Over the past four years Orcas Island has given me more than I can ever repay. Today I would like to give back by being our “canary in the coal mine.” I’m sounding the alarm.

I love island time. I love our laid back approach to life. I love our kindness, our extroversion, the way we welcome each other. Unfortunately, island time, and our welcoming nature are working against us during the COVID-19 emergency.

  • We must close our community to visitors, and we must do it today.
  • We must close our hotels and vacation rentals. Our county government must establish travel restrictions. There’s no time to waste.
  • We must isolate at home until the worst of this is over.

I have heard from some community members that the coronavirus is no big deal, or that our remote location will keep us safe, or that we are already doing enough. I hope they are right…In a year we can all laugh about the silly letter I wrote to the paper. But if they are wrong, the cost is enormous and it is measured in human lives.

If you want to know what a worst case scenario looks like, look to Italy. Italy already has more COVID-19 deaths than China and is on track to have more infections than any other country. If early reporting is to be believed, their tragic error was complacency, slow action, and inadequate isolation measures. If you’ve ever been, Italy has a beautiful culture that is very extroverted, very sociable, very laid back. Sound familiar?

Let me continue down this road. I’ve been astonished to see out-of-state license plates, campers, spring breakers, and summer folk on the island this weekend. We are still welcoming tourists to our island during the pandemic, despite warnings from the Visitors Bureau, Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, and county health and emergency management staff (see video below).

We simply cannot afford the risk posed by these travelers. One of the more frightening aspects of the coronavirus is that some people do not show symptoms. Each visitor is a roll of the dice. Why are we gambling right now?

We cannot have a major outbreak of COVID-19 here. As a (non-medical) worker at one of our health clinics, I can tell you that our local healthcare system is not designed to handle a major health crisis. If you want to learn more about this, please watch the second COVID-19 community update video posted by San Juan County. But basically, we rely entirely on regional hospitals for our critical care.

One of the lessons of Italy is that a national healthcare system in a wealthy Western democracy can indeed collapse under the onslaught of the pandemic.

As Brendan and Ellen describe in the video, the county is planning for a worst case scenario in which area hospitals are overloaded and will no longer accept our medevac patients. I don’t even want to imagine that possibility but I expect we would all see and experience horrors we never thought would visit our beautiful island.

And just to underline the point, this situation would be made far worse if we had extra people on this island, non-essential visitors, summer residents, adding to the load on our limited EMS and healthcare system.

I think there is a misunderstanding amongst summer residents and vacationers, and maybe even locals, that remote places like Orcas are safer right now than more populated areas. That might be, if we somehow dodge the pandemic.

But if COVID-19 hits here in a big way, Orcas might actually be more dangerous than the average American city. Because cities have multiple hospitals, and plenty of grocery stores, and easy routes in and out for help or evacuation.

So please, it is essential that we do everything we can NOW to prevent this from happening. I’m asking every neighbor to:

  • Appeal to the county and state to place travel restrictions or a shelter in place order on our county.
  • Appeal to the county and state, to neighbors, to local business owners to temporarily close hotels and vacation rentals to non-essential visitors.
  • Make noise in every way we can to let the region know we are not open to visitors right now. Let them know it is unsafe for them to visit.
  • Stay at home and practice social distancing.
  • Reach out to neighbors in need, volunteer, do all the things we do best.

I know this will bring added hardship to our little community. I’ve worked for many of our hospitality businesses over the years and I owe each a debt of gratitude. But we must act immediately to protect the lives of our neighbors. Then we can begin to rebuild our community.

I love Orcas Island, I love our little businesses, I love my neighbors. Stay well.

Evan Wagoner


Re: city folk fleeing to remote rural areas: Hoping to escape coronavirus, city dwellers are fleeing to California’s deserts and mountains (LA TIMES)

Local Resources

Letter to the editor from Liz Smith, the Washington State Ferries Writer-in Residence (writers UNITE!) She points out that other island communities are already shutting down to visitors.

San Juan County Coronavirus Page

San Juan County Elected Officials (State and Federal)

San Juan County Council (local elected officials)


  1. Dead nuts ON! Thank you Evan!

    We should erect a sign for everyone coming off the ferry that reads:
    “Welcome to Orcas Island! We have ZERO hospital beds but THREE cemeteries. Please return to your homes”…
    This should also be on the reader board in the ferry lot in Anacortes!


  2. As a former islander who would love nothing more than to be able to live there again I totally agree. Well stated.


  3. Sorry but I feel this is unwarranted and irresponsible type of thinking. Especially considering their are other flu’s that are more serious than this one and have already existed and no one made a big deal about them. Consider that over 16k people died last year in the U.S. alone. Its this type of thinking that leads to mass hysteria. And anyone in the medical field should use caution before making such comments.
    CDC estimates that the burden of illness during the 2018–2019 season included an estimated 35.5 million people getting sick with influenza, 16.5 million people going to a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths from influenza. So if it was that bad from 2018-19 you might have to quarantine the island indefinitely. Because its a come problem with or without covid19.
    If you are concerned with getting sick then stay home.


    • Frederick,
      You are 100% incorrect.
      Please take 14 minutes to educate yourself. The life you save may be your own:


  4. The town of York, Maine just closed all the beaches. We have had too many visitors from away, so forget social distancing. Restaurants are closed except for take out, and more importantly no public restrooms. Ogunquit hasn’t closed Marginal Way walk yet but no one in their right mind would go because of too many people day tripping. It is fair for people from away who have homes here to come but I wish the others would stay home.


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