After a delayed start to summer, the traditional tensions that pop up in Ucluelet every tourist season have returned as visitors trickle into town.
Transcending the familiar parking and beachfire scuttlebutts though is a new source of frustration as locals and visitors are butting heads over protocols put in place to reduce the spread of an ongoing global pandemic.
Ucluelet was closed to travellers, up until the provincial government launched into Phase 3 of its restart plan last month allowing non-essential travel to start up again.
With the town’s tourist population increasing, Ucluelet local Geoff Johnson has been frustrated to see his community’s precautions dropping significantly.
“I’m just really surprised to see that a community that went so hard at the beginning to lock these things down to the point where some members of our community as a whole were on the highway turning people away, is now kind of letting unknown people run roughshod all over that work that we did early on,” Johnson told the Westerly News.
He said restarting the tourism economy should have been paired with a heightened scrutiny over ensuring protocols like social distancing are being followed and masks are being worn when needed.
“I’ve seen the exact opposite,” he said. “I think the big thing is just the general disregard for these things. A lot of people seem to think that their individual comforts or preferences are more important than a larger social movement that’s designed to protect those people, their loved ones and people they don’t know. There’s just a certain disregard overall for something that is in their best interests.”
He said local businesses have done well to make hand sanitizers available and put up signage and markings to encourage proper social distancing, but those measures mean little when no enforcement is in place.
“In most of the businesses, if you walked in when the place was closed and you looked around, you would see the plexiglass screens and the lines on the floor and the signs and the sanitizers everywhere. The trouble is, whether it’s a lack of willingness or ability, a lot of places have decided not to actually actively enforce those rules,” he said.
He added though that employees should not be expected to confront customers unwilling to follow COVID-19 protocols and his disappointment is directed at people choosing not to follow them.
“As a society we can’t trust ourselves to police ourselves even when ours’ and other people’s lives might be on the line and that’s disturbing,” he said. “The cowboy attitude that ‘I can survive’ or ‘I’m not going to get sick,’ to me, seems fairly sociopathic because there’s just a lack of acknowledgement that there are others around you that may not want to die or may not want to be sick or may not want to get other people sick. That’s the disconnect that I don’t really understand.”
Johnson is a musician and said opportunities to perform are about as abundant now as they have been during any other summer, but he won’t take gigs where he can’t guarantee the safety of himself and others.
“Personally, I’ve decided that a lot of what I would do for a living as a musician is not socially responsible right now. There are some gigs I’m doing outside, like wedding ceremonies where I know I’ll be far away from the guests and it’s a small party, well within the provincial mandates,” he said.
He is also diabetic, putting him at higher risk if he contracts the virus and he said he wears a mask frequently not just to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also to normalize masks in the community.
“The science behind the mask isn’t about protecting myself, it’s about if I’m infected protecting other people. I think the big important message to send about wearing a mask is that it’s normal, it’s OK, you’re not the weird one if you’re wearing the mask, you’re just the one who’s worried about the physical and economic impact of this thing. The longer it goes on, the bigger the economic hit is,” he said. “The economic argument that we should keep the economy open is legitimate but, as we’re doing so, we also have to mitigate the risks so that we don’t have to have this half-open economy that has all these extra expenses related to cleaning and PPE and whatever, longer.”
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been encouraging British Columbians to wear a mask, especially in situations where social distancing is not possible, and has refuted a common claim that masks can deprive the wearer of oxygen.
Tofino’s district office recently launched a social media campaign encouraging its residents to wear masks in public situations, but Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel told the Westerly that Ucluelet would not be following suit.
“People need to take control of their own personal health and welfare,” he said. “Tofino is a different town than Ukee. It is 10 times bigger than our town and I think that there’s optics there…Tofino is drastically busier. It’s a whole different wheelhouse up there.”
Noel added that he believes Ucluelet’s businesses are doing very well at ensuring COVID-19 protocols are being followed.
“I think all the businesses are being very professional and following the provincial guidelines. That’s very evident from what I’m seeing,” he said. “I’m seeing everything that I want to be seeing, to be quite frank…For me as mayor, I’m comfortable with what I’m seeing in the community. We’re having a lot of good compliance.”
Ucluelet resident Douglas Ludwig said he is opposed to any COVID-19 protocols in place.
“It’s all absurdities and idiocy in every aspect of it,” Ludwig told the Westerly.
He said he refuses to wear a mask and is concerned wearing one would decrease his oxygen levels and added residents who chose not to wear a mask should not face scrutiny for their decision.
“I’m not going to live my life in fear. I’m not going to wear a mask. I’m going to go out, I’m going to breathe the fresh air and I’m going to help try to open up some minds,” he said.
“I would never impose these kind of idiotic things upon other people and so I don’t want them imposing them onto me or others. It’s about the freedom and the rights to choose these things on your own. Don’t push this onto other people. That’s my biggest philosophy as well in my life: everybody should choose what to do on their own bodies, but never impose it upon other people.”
He said he hasn’t faced much pressure to wear a mask in town, but has felt pressured at various businesses to use hand sanitizer, which he is also opposed to.
“They’re trying to make you put this on every time…My skin is my largest organ on my body, it’s to protect me and, whatever I put on my body, I know it gets absorbed into me. If I don’t eat it, I don’t put it on my body,” he said. “I’ve walked out of stores that say, ‘Wear the hand sanitizer’ because I also believe I vote with my dollar and so if these people want to impose it, well they have a right to. If it’s their business and that is their place then they have a right to say, ‘In my business, you have to do this.’ If they believe that, that’s fine, I can take my dollars elsewhere and I do.”
Ludwig encourages people to seek out information for themselves to make educated decisions around protocols, like masks and sanitizers, and added he believes the best step people can take is to pursue healthier lifestyles.
“When you decide to neglect your body and your health, that’s your choice, but for people that make a conscious effort to eat healthy, exercise, breathe, do good things for their body, well this is what I trust,” he said.