For Hedy Anderson and Paul Engels, the past weeks have been like none other, as they weathered the intrusion of an unwelcome intruder to their places of business — COVID-19.
On Monday, Anderson, the owner of the Sugar Shack, reopened the doors to her take-out eatery after a 14-day closure following a positive test result for a shift worker at the establishment.
And on Maury Island, Engels, of Engels Repair and Towing, is still in the first week of a temporary two-week shut-down of his family’s iconic gas station following a staff member’s positive test.
Both islanders — who are well-known about town and have devoted clienteles — have worked closely with Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) and the Emergency Operations Committee (EOC), in follow-up to the incidents.
The EOC helped them communicate with their customers and the general public about the exposure, while the MRC assessed risks, advised on health considerations and arranged for additional testing for those with exposures.
Both Engels and Anderson said their infected employees had only brief encounters with the public and were masked during their work. Additionally, Engels said that any encounters between the public and the infected employee would most likely have taken place outdoors, as do most interactions between the staff and customers at Engels.
Still, it’s been a period of intense worrying and waiting for both Engels and Anderson.
For Engels, the main concern has been for the staff at the gas station, especially his father, Lou Engels, the patriarch of the iconic family business, as well as his mother, Connie Engels.
Lou, at age 81, has a heart condition, and is especially at risk for complications from the coronavirus — though, according to Paul, Lou has mostly kept to himself during his work at the station.
“He tries to stay in the back of the shop at his bench, and he’s not pulling full days,” he said. “He shouldn’t even be here at all — he should be on the beach, having fun, but this is in his blood, it’s what he knows.”
Thankfully, on Sunday night, Paul said that he, his mother and father, and another worker at the gas station have all now tested negative, and everyone feels fine — including the infected worker, who is on the mend after suffering mild symptoms. Another round of tests for those exposed will be done soon, but for now, the news is good.
“The main thing is the safety of your family, your staff and the safety of your customers,” Paul said. “The financial pressures have been there before and they’ll be there again, but you just want everyone to be safe.”
Anderson, in an interview, said that she was immensely grateful to the EOC and MRC.
Anderson’s first step was to inform her customers, some of whom, she said, were older or had underlying health conditions that put them especially at risk.
With her voice breaking at times, Anderson described how the EOC had helped her craft a statement to her customers and the public about the infection at her place of business.
“I was really just torn up and worried about infecting people,” she said, adding that she had made immediate phone calls to those customers she felt were most at risk due to underlying health conditions. “If I had been responsible for making anyone sick, I still don’t know what I would have done.”
Still, Anderson said, within minutes of pressing “send” on her email to customers, she was flooded with sympathetic responses, wishing her well and thanking her for her transparency.
“Probably more than 150 people reached out to say they are supporting me,” she said, again, with a hitch in her voice. “There was not one grouchy person — I was not expecting that.”
Anderson said that after her experience, she’s eager to help other business owners who experience similar circumstances.
“I would love to talk to any other businesses that go through this, because everyone wants us to make it,” she said.
Anderson said that during the Sugar Shack’s closure, the shop had been deep cleaned, and she had also distracted herself by working on a heartwarming project — filling a wall, inside her shop, with photo portraits of her customers’ pets.
In an effort not to lose touch with her customers, she put out a call for them to send her their pet portraits, which she has now framed. Receiving the photos, and then printing them out and framing them for the wall, gave her a purpose during her unplanned vacation from work, she said.
“It has really cheered me up to see such charming pictures,” she said.
But she said the most healing thing that happened to her during the closure was receiving so many notes and letters from her customers, saying “hang in there.”
“To go from being in tears, thinking this was the worst thing that ever happened, to realizing that it’s going to be alright, and knowing I’m not alone — it was a process of recognizing that this is the reality, and it just took a little time to sink in,” she said.
Paul Engels said his customers had also shown him kindness and support as well.
“Everybody understands,” he said. “They’ve said ‘this will pass,’ and ‘we’re here for you.’”
Engels also expects to stay busy during the gas station’s temporary closure.
“It’s making lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “It takes your rhythm out, but we’ll do the best we can and take care of some projects and maintenance that have been waiting in the wings. It’s the reality of the world we’re living in.”
Both Engels and Anderson have now joined a growing list of local businesses and organizations that have been affected by COVID-19 in recent months.
Vashon Island School District has now had three confirmed cases of COVID-19 linked to its buildings — one by a member of the district staff who worked alone, and another by a contractor who worked on the construction site for the new District maintenance building. And on Monday evening, another case was confirmed among the staff, which has now led to some temporary changes in food services distribution programs as other staff members are quarantined and tested. (See EOC report, page 1).
According to the district’s protocol, district parents have been immediately alerted by email about all positive cases connected to VISD by Superintendent Slade McSheehy.
Other businesses affected by COVID-19 include Langland Dental Associates and Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, each of which had a positive case among their staff. Another business, O Sole Mio Pizzeria/Cafe Vino Olio, also closed briefly as a precautionary measure after a secondary exposure among its staff but has now reopened.
And on Nov. 25, a Facebook post by Island Queen, another restaurant, announced a similar precautionary closure, due to a secondary exposure for someone on the staff. The restaurant would reopen, its owner said, when it felt safe to do so.
Vashon Island Fire District also had a confirmed case of COVID among its staff in September, with a quarantine of seven additional exposed members, though the public was not widely informed of the situation at the time it happened.
Last week, the case count on Vashon rose dramatically in a near-vertical line, with the EOC reporting that one-third of the 62 known cases of the illness that had occurred on Vashon since the beginning of the pandemic had been recorded in only five days. (see page 1). By press time this week, the count had risen to 64 islanders.
Emergency Operations Center manager Rick Wallace warned islanders to exercise extreme caution and diligence in response to the rapidly rising numbers.
“We need the people of Vashon to understand that almost anybody you meet probably has a strong chance of having COVID-19,” Wallace said. “The disease is here. You don’t get this many new infections within a week without having a significant amount of disease on the island.”
Wallace pointed to a sharp rise in cases not just on Vashon but also throughout King County, saying it was inevitable that the virus would find landfall on Vashon.
“People fantasize that they are safe on our little sweet island, but a third of the island’s population goes off-island every day to red zones on the mainland,” he said. “That’s 3,300 ferry round trips a day for work, school, shopping, doctors. Every one of those 3,300 people is probably encountering someone who has COVID-19, and it stands to reason they will get infected and bring it back to the island.”
Wallace said that now, more than ever, islanders should observe strict masking, social distancing, and keep to their household groups as much as possible.
“When the disease level reaches a certain point, that makes every little measure you can take to stay safe that much more important,” he said. “All it takes is saying, ‘Oh, I forgot my mask,’ or ‘I haven’t seen John and Betty for weeks and I really want to talk to them’ or any one of the many temptations we have. One little slip and you could have it in your household and your family could be infected — and that means everybody is at risk now. There is no room for error anymore.”