A balmy summer float from the 2019 Sointula Salmon Days festival. (North Island Gazette file photo)

Sointula braces for economic challenges after cancelling Salmon Days festival to keep island safe from COVID-19

The Malcolm Island business face economic challenges on top of cancelled festival.

The Village of Sointula has cancelled its annual Salmon Days festival this summer to protect the small Malcolm Island community from COVID-19.

The festival is the community’s main summer event, both socially and economically. It would have been held over the Aug. 7-9 weekend, but organizer Alden Barnett said Sointula will hold tight until it’s safe to party again.

“This year is really disappointing. It’s a huge loss. But we’re doing what we need to to keep this thing away from the island.”

The event attracts hundreds of visitors with entertainment, food, crafts, dancing and socializing. Many visitors are former residents who have moved away. It’s a significant source of revenue for restaurants and hotels on the island, many of which are open seasonally, based on tourism. Travel restrictions mean the summer is in limbo for many of the businesses.

New owners of Coho Joe Cafe & B&B, Radka Psotkova and her husband Keegan Taylor, had just hired a couple from Toronto to help them for the summer season. The couple had quit their jobs and were in the process of moving west when Psotkova had to call them and say Coho Joe couldn’t afford to have them on anymore.

“Those first two weeks of March, the news was breaking here, and people were really freaked out,” Psotkova told the Gazette. “Pretty much all of our customers stopped showing up. April was a little better, we started seeing our familiar faces coming to take take-out.” Psotkova and Taylor bought the business last year after running the cafe the previous summer with the former owners.

During the year, Coho Joe’s relies on the Sointula community, but during the summer, their revenue is nearly five times greater. Like many tourism-based businesses, it’s when they make the bulk of their annual revenue.

Salmon Days is hands-down the busiest weekend of the year, followed closely by the May long weekend hardball tournament, which has also been cancelled.

Coho Joe’s business is evolving to meet new needs on the island. One couple asked Psotkova to make a special take-out dinner and dessert for their anniversary, and people have asked for birthday cakes and small catering orders for family events.

“It’s things we don’t normally do, but dollars count, so of course, we say yes,” Psotkova said, adding that they feel very supported by the local community. “I think they are making sure we survive this. I think they are making it their business to make sure we get through this.”

Not every business owner is in the same boat, however. Ray Smith has owned and ran the Oceanfront Hotel and Whale’s Rub Pub for more than 40 years, and welcomes the calm forced on his business by the pandemic. With the mortgage paid off, his overhead costs are lower. The drop in revenue is harsh, but his business expenses are also down.

“It’s hurting financially, but I didn’t realize how much I was spending on fuel running up and down island,” Smith said.

The new reality is making him adjust business strategy to a slower pace. “The government loan fills a few holes for a bit,” he said, “but I expect when regulations loosen up a bit, we’ll look for long term tenants rather than treat it as a hotel.”

With enough rooms filled to cover utilities and taxes, Smith is letting the pandemic ease him into retirement. “I’ve never enjoyed my life as much as I do right now,” he added.

Malcolm Island has no confirmed COVID-19 cases at this time, and precautions are being taken to keep it that way. Since a state of emergency was declared in nearby Alert Bay, a conservation officer has been stationed at the Port McNeill ferry dock, turning away anyone bound for Cormorant Island (where Alert Bay is located) who is on non-essential travel. Malcolm Island is not affected by the ban, but nation-wide recommendation to avoid non-essential travel has curbed most visitors.

READ MORE: State of Emergency declared in Alert Bay due to COVID-19 outbreak

“There are people here who are strangers to us – maybe they have a new house or something. But we just tell them to stay where they are for two weeks. If you need food for supplies, we’ll get it to you. They can order from the co-op here, and they’ll be taken care of,” Barnett said.

The Sointula Co-op is accepting online orders and has scheduled times for pick-up. Store staff safety is a priority, Barnett added, saying they don’t want people coming in from other places and putting those retail staff at risk.

“So if anyone finds themselves here who’s new, they’re going to be isolating for two weeks for sure.”

As for event plans, Barnett says they’re watching the situation and will be ready to act.

“The minute the gates are open, oh boy, look out. We’re gonna have a party.”

* This story has been updated to reflect the Conservation Officer’s role


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