This weekend Rage Rabbit and I shot this Orcas Island tourism video. It’s a special coronavirus edition 2020 video, for all those corona tourists out there.
Let’s talk about the corona tourists. Way back in March, when the world ended, I went through basically a monthlong panic attack as COVID-19 ran rampant just 100 miles south of here, in Seattle.
At the time we had no idea what was going to happen to Orcas Island. I was monitoring a UW website that was projecting ICU and ventilator capacity in the state of Washington. Early in the pandemic, it looked like our regional medical system might collapse, and ICU beds and ventilators would be severely rationed.
This matters in a remote rural place like Orcas, because our ambulances are helicopters and our emergency rooms are in nearby cities. We fly our most severe cases to Seattle. If the regional medical system collapses, we could find ourselves very alone.
In early April, I began hearing about a contingency plan to set up a World War II-style COVID ward in the community theater building (in essence, a place for people to drown to death without access to advanced life support). Imagine how I felt, then, when the tourists started arriving.
They arrived first in private planes: sleek twin-engine Beechcraft, the occasional personal jet. I saw people pulling luggage out of hatches and throwing them into idling pickup trucks. To be fair, these folks aren’t traditional tourists. They were likely the most affluent of our seasonal residents.
But they chose to come to their second (third, fourth, eighth?) home during height of the initial quarantine, when the governor issued a strict staying-at-home order.
I imagine the self-justification was something along the lines of: “I *am* staying at home, it’s just that it’s my other home, in another state. Which requires me to fly there, in my jet.”
At the time I lived near the airport so I could watch the comings and goings of private aircraft throughout the stay-at-home order. The airport was busy. I was furious.
Early in the pandemic, a friend of mine described the coronavirus as a “truthbringer.” It is striking to me how much the coronavirus has revealed: Truths that pre-existed but are now painfully obvious.
One of the truths is that me-first selfishness is at the heart of the American soul. We call it rugged individualism, the cowboy archetype, don’t tread on me.
I remember during the start of the quarantine that there were about two weeks where almost everybody stopped what they were doing and listened to the disease experts. We stayed home. We drastically altered our daily lives.
And then after that, it was like, WHAT ABOUT MEEEEEEEEEEE? That’s when the COVID tourism really blew up on Orcas.
I really thought we’d have no summer season this year, and that Orcas would be a ghost town. How wrong I was. In some measures, this was the busiest season I have ever seen. We got slammed. The ferries, on reduced COVID schedules, were so badly overloaded that they were running upwards of two hours late.
Our food co-op reported record sales midsummer, in spite of significantly curtailed operations due to COVID safety. One of our restaurants claimed to be the busiest restaurant in Washington State. I spoke to a friend who worked a park concession stand, and she said they had seen receipts from all fifty states by June.
I recall reading in the news about outbreaks in Texas and Florida and then seeing cars, RVs, and vanlifers from those states. Smiling like we should be happy to see them.
I get that staying-at-home in stifling quarantined cities was uncomfortable this year. I have many friends who were stuck in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. It sounded very difficult.
But our national inability to sit still for the period of time necessary to halt the epidemic was crazymaking to me. An aggressive quarantine would only have only taken a few weeks—such measures succeeded in other countries (Australia, Germany, South Korea, China, etc.)
Again, I think it goes to the coalback selfish heart of America, the supremacy of Me over Us.
I believe we lack a fundamental solidarity. In that we don’t really identify as a group. We don’t identify with our neighbors. We identify as Jack and Karen Q. American. We wave our black rifles when someone asks us to put on a surgical mask.
We load up our RVs and go on vacation while the world is ending.
There simply is no We in America. We the people is a lie. It’s Me the people.
Okay, breathe, Rage Rabbit, breathe.
I do think our culture is sick, I do believe we have a fundamental illness at our heart, that makes us weaker as a society.
But the coronavirus has revealed another truth. That while part of our culture is as selfish as a threenager, there are those among us who believe in neighbors, who believe in us, and who act accordingly.
While every Karen, Jim, and Karen loaded up their eBikes and besieged Orcas, islanders SHOWED UP for each other.
Witness the corps of grandmas who began producing free masks, face shields, and PPE for island residents (and visitors, I’ll add. You’re welcome.)
Or that suddenly, in mid summer, trailers and RVs began sprouting up in vacant lots all over town. The community had decided to end homelessness. And so we did, with donated trailers, tents, and portable showers.
The food bank ramped up operations, with farmers market produce, hot meals, and an army of volunteers. A disused camp cafeteria was turned into a community soup kitchen.
The county organized a reserve of healthcare providers, some of them coming out of retirement, in case we found ourselves on our own.
The locally-owned food co-op completely transformed from a small grocery store to a food delivery service, in just a few days.
The community foundation gathered funds for rent and mortgage assistance.
And when the county health officer mandated masks, Orcas Island complied, even the grumblers.
And all the while, the tourists poured out of their crossovers, demanding hotel rooms and COVID tests. And having goddamn weddings. And to our credit we didn’t push them off the ferry dock. Not a one.