Bigfork Area Businesses Balance Safety and Bottom Line in Preparing for Summer

Boat tour operator, citing coronavirus, shuts down for season; other businesses scramble for seasonal help

By Andy Viano
Bill Myers of Pointer Scenic Tours stands by his business’ sign on Bigfork Harbor on May 21, 2020. Myers has canceled his boat tours of Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake for the season due to COVID 19. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bill Myers has been extending a hand to his clients for more than 25 years, leading them from the deck of his 21-foot boat to the shores of Wild Horse Island and anywhere else they send him.

This year, Myers says, extending that hand is too risky. And social distancing when you’re cruising on Flathead Lake is out of the question.

So Pointer Scenic Cruises/Wild Horse Island Boat Trips, the business Myers has run for the last quarter century, will not host guests this year, despite the state of Montana’s required 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors slated to expire on June 1. For the 67-year-old Myers, the risk is just too great.

“I’ve weathered everything that’s come at me, including all the smoke from the fires, and the foggy days, wind and weather,” he said. “When I thought about this more than a month ago, I realized this would not be prudent, and it’s very hard when you see your whole income stream (disappear).”

Myers’ charters depart from Bigfork Bay, and the community that relies so heavily on seasonal travel is trying to walk a delicate line as an expected influx of tourists arrives in the coming weeks. Memorial Day weekend typically kicks off the most important three months of the year in town, a period that can account for an overwhelming percentage of a business’ annual revenue, but this year a rush of out-of-state visitors presents its own unique danger. Myers in particular worries about how quickly one infected person could spread the coronavirus not only to him, but to the hundreds of other clients he sees during the course of a busy week or two.

“Let’s say I get a group and somebody comes to you and thinks they’re healthy,” Myers said. “Maybe something happens to them on the plane, or they pick it up here, say they’re in a hotel or a motel … and the person comes to me and they get me infected. Well, I could have had 100 people on my boat during (the incubation) period.”

The nature of Myers’ business — taking guests by the hand from boat to shore and traveling in close quarters — may make him uniquely exposed to a potential infection, but the personal choice between remaining open to keep their business healthy and protecting individual health is a decision every business is having to make.

“Everyone has to make their own choice,” Myers said. “It’s a business-by-business decision. For me, I determined that I’m going to operate in a safe and socially responsible fashion.”

To make that decision easier for some business owners in Bigfork, the town is hoping to attract more in-state guests this year. Bigfork Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rebekah King said her office has squashed its traditional ad campaign that promotes the town from Calgary to Seattle, and instead focused exclusively on driving visitors from within Montana. Bigfork’s reliance on summer activity — King estimated that businesses in town make more than 80 percent of their annual revenue in June, July and August — makes shutting down impossible for many chamber members, so opening as safely as possible has become the priority.

“Most of our members are preparing for a slower year than normal and hoping to have more travel within the state of Montana,” King said. “We’re really trying to push to explore your Montana in Bigfork, and bring people from Billings and Bozeman and Great Falls (here) because I think a lot of people aren’t comfortable traveling out of state.”

Regardless of where they are from, when travelers do arrive en masse, a shortage of part-time employees in town could complicate matters even further. Seasonal help has been hard to come by this year for a number of reasons, but Bigfork is uniquely impacted because of a number of businesses’ reliance on the J-1 VISA program that brings international workers to town. King said there are between 40 and 60 J-1 workers in Bigfork annually, and as of May 22 the status of those employees was very much in question as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to complicate international travel.

Meanwhile, King said downtown Bigfork was still buzzing with activity on Friday, even with the annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival canceled because of the coronavirus. Most businesses will be open this summer, even if some operate with reduced hours or reduced staff. And when the weather warms up for good, the expectation is that some semblance of a normal summer on the shore of Flathead Lake could be on the horizon.

“Ultimately, everybody has to feel safe and everybody has to be safe,” King said. “I think these next couple weeks will be very telling on how the rest of the summer might be and what we can expect.”

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