FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — The Clipper is back, and so are visitors to the San Juan Islands.
To kick off Memorial Day weekend, the San Juan Clipper set sail for Friday Harbor for the first time in 15 months.
"We feel like it's a whole new fresh start," said Clipper Captain Jason Mihok, as he led the vessel out of Pier 69 on Friday. "There were a lot of unknowns for us. We were one of the first businesses to shut down and we're one of the last ones to start up, so a long wait."
The ship had roughly 150 passengers, who docked in Friday Harbor about mid-day. The town has handled the health crisis remarkably well.
"Zero deaths and no community spread on this entire island," said Farhad Ghatan, while standing out in front of his bed and breakfast. He also serves as the town's mayor.
"The county enacted a mask mandate early on," Ghatan said. "People were holed up here, very, very isolated from each other and from the mainland."
As of Friday, Washington state health records showed all the islands which make up San Juan County had only three active COVID-19 cases, and nearly 80% of eligible residents had started the vaccination process.
Ghatan said the biggest problem now has been finding the staff and the space to meet demands. He attributes the influx of visitors to a pent-up interest in travel, and the limited international options to do so.
"Every window has a help wanted sign and the restaurants are all in need of help right now," he said.
"Staffing has been a big issue for [the county], housing plays into it," said Crysta Griffith, who manages the Downrigger Restaurant on the waterfront. "Space is the key. We've had people out here since December when [indoor dining] was shut down, dining when it was 37 degrees out."
Captain Mihok said service to the San Juan Islands and whale watching tours are a good start for the company, but employees are eagerly awaiting the reopening of the U.S.-Canada border for business to really pick up.
"Right now, we're still a sliver of what we were until we can open the Victoria run. We're really bare bones. There are still a lot of people waiting to come back to work," he said.