In late February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced what was, at that time, believed to be the first documented fatality from Covid-19 on U.S. soil: a resident of a long-term care facility in King County, Wash. The marine industry throughout the state prepared to take the brunt of the pandemic’s wrath as Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide lockdown a month later.
Since then, the state’s Covid-19 death rate has flattened, and marine-related businesses are largely operating, albeit under pandemic rules. As other states experience new outbreaks and potential shutdowns, the lessons learned in Washington may suggest a path forward elsewhere during the months to come.
For the Seattle-based Northwest Marine Trade Association, the initial crisis prompted some of the nation’s earliest Covid-era boating advocacy. The association learned that it was important not only to demand that marine businesses remain open, but also to encourage boaters to get out on the water.
“The NMTA started writing a weekly Covid-19 update email for members on March 24 that initially strived to consolidate, vet and simplify the overwhelming amount of information our member businesses were receiving,” says NMTA president George Harris. “These emails have some of the highest open rates we have seen for NMTA member communications.”
The NMTA also leaned into serving as a resource hub in several other ways. The organization worked with the governor’s office, U.S. Department of Commerce and others to classify marinas, marine service providers and industry-related businesses as essential and, therefore, eligible for phase one and two reopenings. The NMTA also created OpenForBoating.com to promote safe boating and fishing during the pandemic, and took the Anacortes Boat and Yacht Show online.
Despite these efforts, there was still economic damage. New and brokerage boat sales decreased by 69.6 percent in April compared with the same time last year, and commercial fishing took losses that will likely register in the multimillions. There’s also continued uncertainty about when the U.S.-Canada border will reopen for cruising boaters, Harris says.
But builders are sounding more optimistic by the day. Hewes Marine Co. in Colsville, Wash. — following a challenging start to the pandemic — is working on ways to move forward with production. It builds the Hewescraft brand, which is known for family-oriented, aluminum fishing boats found just about everywhere in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. “Not long after the first reports of Covid-19 cases in our state, there was a possible case reported in the Colville school district,” says Hewes Marine vice president Clint Kirry. “We employ many parents of school-age children, so concern hit our community very early.”
The company closed the Hewescraft facility before the state’s mandate and kept it closed until May 4. All employees were laid off, making them eligible to collect unemployment. The company continued to pay workers’ health insurance costs during the shutdown. “We then reopened with the help of our local health district, ran two shifts instead of our traditional single shift in order to socially distance on the production floor, and instituted extensive new protocols to keep our employees safe,” Kirry says. “On May 29, we returned to a single shift, and we have not had a single reported case of Covid-19 from any of our employees.”
Hewes Marine is a major employer in Colville, so its decision to close was not taken lightly. “Closing the factory in a community that relies so much on us as an employer was the most severe gut punch,” Kirry says. “All of our employees were laid off as standby and were eligible for full unemployment, but it is a terrible feeling to send so many people home without their usual level of income.” Keeping healthcare benefits for all employees during the shutdown “was a large financial burden, but we felt it was the right thing to do.”
Megayacht builder Westport Yachts realized early on that with Washington being a hot spot in the news, nobody wanted to see its employees for meetings, leading to a downshift in business travel. Even so, the company has delivered two yachts and completed one sale — virtually — since the pandemic began.
“The low point was on March 23,” says Westport president Daryl Wakefield. “We had to reluctantly shutter the buildings in Westport, our two facilities in Port Angeles, and shut down operations with the exception of essential personnel. In addition, we had to cease operation on currently contracted boats as mandated by the state per the governor’s stay-at-home order.”
Bremerton, Wash.-based Inventech Marine Solutions, which builds Life Proof Boats, had public and private contracts that let some operations continue, since they were deemed essential. “Our business is structured around a percentage of total revenue to be focused on government sales, which has been steady during the pandemic,” says CEO Micah Bowers. “We followed the state’s requirements and were able to stay focused on essential projects utilizing team members who wanted to work while still following CDC and Washington requirements. The low points were definitely related to shutting down and the fear people have of getting sick. There were and still are a lot of really scared people.”
Heading into the fall, Bowers foresees a mixed bag. “The industry is quite busy with recreational sales,” he says. “It appears many of the shows are canceled or planning to cancel for the fall. With boats being an object consumers need to get on and feel before making a purchase, it is definitely an impact we will feel. We are focusing more on online marketing and video creation. Virtual walkthroughs are a must right now.”
Harris says NMTA has had good access to the governor’s office, multiple agencies and various municipal leaders. Kirry, however, says one lesson learned is that other priorities often come before boating. “Because we are in an outlying area, our low infection rate numbers and low population numbers overall have made us basically an afterthought to the large-scale planning that has had to take place in our state’s government center,” he says. “As a result, we have needed to make decisions on our own prior to any effective government guidance.”
Westport, like everyone else, is still working on recovery, with hopes of starting construction on two new models in 2021. “We are still not 100 percent reopened,” Wakefield says. “Because of the restrictions in place, we are limited, and this has affected our production.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.