Tofino in the Age of COVID

From carefully managed safety measures to mainstream COVID deniers, Tofino’s become a chaotic mishmash of policies and behaviours that feels more like a powder keg ready to blow than an anxiety-free tourist destination. This past Saturday, someone tried to pull my mask off in a gas station filled with maskless tourists. A mid-afternoon drunken attempt at humour. When I brought it up with a third person I was threatened with violence.

Some of my favourite people live in Tofino. The town has always been supportive of my writing with many stores still carrying The Haunting of Vancouver Island. I first visited Tofino in the 1990s and returned often to surf and then paddle surf after a knee injury. I eventually purchased an old fishing boat in 2015 that had been converted into a living space. A thinking-outside-the-box way to have an affordable home and office. I then invested in an unsuccessful restaurant business, recently winning the subsequent lawsuit.

I’d live in Tofino full time if I could, but due to health reasons and my continued education goals I can’t at the moment. My “home” is a centrally located condo in Victoria, where I work out and try to bike everywhere. My two lives are quite different from one another.

I was in Tofino for a friend’s wedding on February 22nd. As usual, I left thinking I’d return shortly. Then COVID struck. Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations and Tofino asked non-locals to stay away. Having a compromised immune system from chemo in 2011, I complied out of self-preservation as much as out of respect. I finally returned to Tofino on August 11th for simultaneous spring maintenance and winter prep on the boat. It wasn’t a holiday, but a race against time. I avoided beach fires, sit-in-dining, and town (downtown) as often as possible. But I did need food and materials for repairs. A friend was staying at a private cabin where I could safely sit by a fire, which was nice. In total I stayed for twelve days.

I never intended to write about the COVID measures in Tofino, but I feel I have important information for people who take COVID seriously and for respectful visitors. I have a wider perspective than many people who live in Tofino full time, but I’m not a tourist, a seasonal worker, or a new “local” (as they often call themselves). I’m both familiar with Tofino and can compare the safety measures being used in Victoria. I’ve also noticed — because I was looking for it myself — accurate information is not easily found online.

Other than the beach photos, most of my images are phone shots so the quality varies.

The dock — where my boat is moored — is a busy place. It’s more-or-less a water taxi bus stop. Tourists also throw in a crab traps or come by to look at the boats. On nice summer days, boat owners often work on their crafts, take them out, or prepare to take them out.

There are sometimes crowds of people waiting for the taxis. Masks are worn by some, but most don’t wear them. The taxis are small enough that there is no real social distancing. Two young women who claimed to originally be from Israel walked over from the taxi stop and started talking to a woman I was speaking with (not someone from the dock). Being free loving spirits, the strangers were soon hugging. I made a comment about COVID and one of the visitors said she’d rather die from a hug than anything else.

Shaking hands was a common sight as was smoke sharing. To be fair to the dock I am on, this is a common practice I saw all over Tofino. In people under thirty especially. It came across as cool not to wear a mask. If I was younger, I know I’d be the same way. Guys and girls who are trying to meet each other aren’t going to mask up if no one else is, let alone be saying no to a passed joint or a grinding hug. I was told to avoid the open beaches at night as they have become huge parties due to new campgrounds, car camping, and illegal campsites being out of control. One local I know — and respect — told me he believes these masses of people are mostly from Vancouver, unemployed, and on CERB.

After a couple of days on the dock, I started to keep my COVID views to myself. Most of the boat owners are people I like and I rely on them to keep an eye on my boat while I’m away. I was more comfortable at the dock, but leaving felt like a series of calculated risks.

Most businesses had good measures in place. I needed to go to Method Marine, Slegg, and Co-op Hardware for boat repair items and for advice. At Method Marine, I stepped aside to let a guy go ahead of me as I was putting on my mask. Not even a “thank you” as he ducked under the rope and walked in without a mask or being told that he could enter. They called him by name so the staff obviously knew him.

I can’t tell you how many staff members I’ve known at Method over the years or how many thousands of dollars I’ve spent. Entitled new people always annoy me, but this was a whole new level. They helped me a lot again, of course, so I won’t be too critical (but it was weak).

The other businesses I mentioned had equally sound measures, but no rope duckers.

My bandana and shirt will both become important items in this story. The shirt is my new Tribal Parks Allies shirt. Supporting Tla-o-qui-aht is important, and being able to wear their sea serpent crest had me more stoked than anyone could know. How many shirts have you seen with a sea serpent and a tree with eyes on it? Bullet proof, I swear.

I choose to wear a bandana for several reasons: Environmentally, it makes more sense to me as I can wash them often (I have three). I can easily fold the bandanas up and place one in my pocket and keep one in my pack. We wore scarves and bandanas over our faces sometimes in Afghanistan so it’s already comfortable for me as well. Standard masks don’t fit me well, due to my glasses, beard, and the placement of my ears (damn COVID denier genetics). I also get anxious and have trouble breathing, but I refuse to get an exemption.

Some people might say a bandana is not as effective as a mask, but I don’t care. I’m not a surgeon. Two layers of cloth when folded properly blocks large particles both ways. Plus, it’s a social cue for people around me to back off.

I had hoped to only be in Tofino for a few days, but there were a lot of problems with my boat including rain leaks, missing bumpers, and both batteries not working. So, I needed to get groceries a few times. I think I only went to Co-op in town twice. People suggested I avoid the store mid day. I saw a long lineup once when I biked by, but it was gone by the time I walked up to the store. Great measurements were in place.

On my first day in Tofino, I went to Mermaid Tales to sign books and make a purchase. Their measurements were careful and respectful, of course. Only a couple of people were allowed into the store at a time and hand sanitizer was at the door.

Common Loaf bakery is one of my favourite places to eat on the island. Normally, I’d come here to get a coffee — at least — most days. I think I was only here twice this time though, based on two loaves of bread I bought. It was a bit of a wait in line, but totally worth it.

One thing I noticed, is that people who entered without masks were mostly locals.  The sort of visitors who were going to Common Loaf seemed very respectful. I wonder what the correlation is between healthier whole foods and taking COVID seriously?

But the locals… I told a a surfer I was talking to in line (who said she was local) it was up to us to represent and set the standards. I felt like it was a light bulb moment for her, but also that she wasn’t going to change her habits. Masks don’t work with the casual but cool look.

Here’s one of the owners, Lee, standing behind the glass (he took off his mask for the photo). I could write a whole post about how much I like this business, but you’d think someone paid me to do it. I respect that they care about the environment, hire local First Nations (some businesses are painfully white for the demographics), and that they’re a Tribal Parks Ally (giving 1% back to the nation). They represent the old Tofino I still love. They’ve never had a staff member I didn’t like.

Lee once told me they believe that Common Loaf is haunted by a cat. So there’s that too.

The food is always good. I tried a curry vegetarian slice of pizza and was blown away by how delicious it was. All this time and I never even knew. Curry pizza.

A Karen — as the memes call her — came into Common Loaf while I was waiting in line (not in photo). She skirted the line up, squeezed past the narrow walkway, brushed up against people, and entered past the “Only Two Customers at a Time” sign without a mask. Pushing past the front person and entering the store with two people already inside. She asked for a clean washroom, as she didn’t want to use one someone else had, apparently.

The staff member politely told the woman there were no customer washrooms, as they couldn’t safely keep up with the cleaning. The woman left in a huff (but not as dramatic as people have in some online videos). Likely heading back to her 300-dollars-a-night-flower-petals-on-the-toilet-seat hotel room cursing the injustices of the world.

Unfortunately, there have been so many incidents like this one in Tofino that it’s been in the media. It turns out that Canadian tourists are the worst.

Here’s a text from a friend who was working in the ER at Tofino’s hospital. The attitude is so out of control “tourist” has become a slur to me. The truth is, most visitors are really good. But, visitors (including two-day-old locals) who speed through children play zones, yell at business staff and/or treat them like theme park attendants, don’t wear masks (as a guest in another community), and litter all over the place are not really cool.

I’m tempted to say more about this, but anyone reading this post is likely a decent human being already and not a selfish “asshat” — as she calls him. You might be interested to know, tourists have come to the hospital asking to be tested for COVID. The Tofino hospital only has ten beds and it services nearby coastal communities, as well. If nearby cities are at full capacity in an outbreak there will need to be makeshift shelters. The large number of deaths in some places have been due to overwhelmed health care facilities. Canada has been lucky, so far.

I spoke to more than one person in Tofino who said they still believe COVID is a hoax. The March belief that it’s only as bad as the common flu prevails. How does this happen? you ask. The people are not getting information. Tofino is a different kind of place. A lot of locals don’t watch TV or scroll through Google News. Many have been educated by their employers, true, but what about all the car campers and transients? What about the younger unemployed who are just living to surf and/or party? What about trade workers? One guy told me he thought it was mighty coincidental that the virus showed up when there were protests all over the world.

The problem might really be that Canada has managed our cases too well, with Vancouver Island being unbelievably lower than the rest of British Columbia even. As a result, behaviours reminded me of the complacency seen in soldiers when they’ve been expecting an enemy for too long that never arrives.

I read in the Westerly newspaper that Tribal Parks Allies was selling shirts in the business in this photo — as they were having a harder year. As I mentioned above, I love their shirt and I am proud to wear it. It’s not offered online or at any other business I’m aware of. It was the only reason I went to this business. I struggled with what to do when I saw this maskless crowd of tourists. Support Tribal Park Allies and get a cool shirt or run away.

I took this photo after several people had already left out the back door and two older women had left out the front. I had my mask on and decided to make my own line up outside and to just wait. Notice the staff have their masks on their chins. When enough people had left, I went in and quickly bought a shirt. The guy in blue came back inside the store even though he had seen me waiting patiently outside, to loudly demand something else and tell the worker more about his personal life story. I wanted to smack him.

People from Tofino can tell which business this is, obviously, but I don’t want to call them out. The owner who recently passed away was really good to me. I really like their former manager and her husband too. It saddened me to see this level of ridiculousness. It’s a contradiction to me, for them to say they want to help Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation by selling their shirts but to just not even adhere to the nation’s basic territorial guidelines.

In contrast, Tofino Brewing Company is an example of amazing measures. Look at those signs! They made signs. How cool is that? And the lineup starts further away from the door than anywhere else I’ve seen.

I’ve always respected the owner, Dave. Great ideas, solid branding, amazing staff, and a nice dude too. And what else would a guy like me want to drink in this world (I rarely do) than a seaweed Kelp Stout? Near Slegg, it looked safe enough for me to pick up a few.

Long Beach Automotive is also on this road. I replaced my boat bumpers with used tires that I acquired from them. They also had great measures in place. The office is closed with a sign that asks you to call from outside. Next door to them is Daylight Cannabis. They also had signs and restrictive measures in place.

I was going to buy a coffee from Tofitian one day but gave up after waiting ten minutes. I avoided Tacofino for the same reason. I did get takeaway with friends from Wild Side one night. All three businesses appear to be doing as good of a job as they can be. There were groups of people in the parking lot, though. It’s the mall a-week-before-Christmas busy. A friend told me he snapped at someone for standing too close to him in a line up. A person might want to practice their polite request for people to back off before coming here.

I got the impression the parking lot has become a place for younger people to meet up. Which is good, I guess, as everyone’s outdoors and not in each other’s space.

I was grateful for Beaches grocery, which is located in the same lot. “One” capacity! Maybe because people know there are other people waiting the line moved quickly.

Beaches was a destination for me to bike to and a place to get produce without having to go into town. I’m not sure why, but I started pounding blueberries. When my body craves something so dramatically I tend to give in. Especially if there’s a virus around. Beaches also sells a small amount of boxed and canned goods, as well as junk food and sandwiches.

On my second last day in Tofino, I decided to stop at the Gas n Go for one of those same sandwiches. I had promised a woman I’d chop a few pieces of wood in exchange for two stumps I could put on my boat as seats. I was worried about energy — due to my disabilities — so I decided it would be best if I had some extra calories with me.

I went inside with my mask on. It was pure chaos. People were everywhere inside and out without masks. Some fast walking and borderline running. Laughing. Yelling. Party mode. It was mid afternoon and Touristapalooza was in full swing. I should have left right then.

I saw a friend of a friend and nodded at him. He might not have recognized me. For whatever reason he walked up to me and tried to pull my bandana off. He grabbed some of my beard so it didn’t happen. Plus I had reached up quickly. I realized he was drunk by the way he was laughing. He was someone I’d met once, but he is also a small guy. So, despite being seriously triggered I held myself in check, marched over and grabbed a sandwich, and loudly made statements about all of the people around me. Not my finest hour.

The only person in the store with safety measures in place was the dude behind the counter hiding behind his Money-Mart-like glass. Not like he’s going to get shot, of course, but to avoid the toxic spray of drunkards and inconsiderate tourists. It was an absolutely brutal scene compared to the Co-op Gas station where I actually bought fuel.

That night, I talked to our mutual friend and told him he might want to tell his buddy that I’m a veteran. Not to pull “that” card, but because it would be for his own safety to not do stupid shit when I’m unprepared, as I could have an involuntary reaction — as most people know a veteran might (let alone a former bouncer and someone who arrested people in downtown Vancouver for a living).

“He would have just pulled out a knife and stabbed you,” the mutual friend said.

“Then he would be dead,” I replied; because that would be the stupidest thing anyone could ever do to me.

A couple of chumps, looks like.

But I sort of don’t blame him. There’s an attitude amongst some people in Tofino that COVID is a joke, a hoax, and a party killer. It’s also the tourists who are running around not respecting anyone else. It’s the car campers and the two-day-old locals and even some of those careful workers you see who stop caring at the end of their shifts. Yeah, the knives — if true –that’s just stupid. A mental health time bomb running through a powder keg with a lit match.

I had another day of work I could have done on my boat, but I realized it was time to leave before I lost it on someone. I began to head back to Victoria on Sunday, August 23rd.

On a last minute whim, I decided to stop at Long Beach so I could better write about Tofino in the age of COVID — something I had decided I needed to do. Other than a dusk walk in the rain at Mackenzie Beach, I had avoided all of the beaches. I needed to say something about the beaches and people were already talking about those closer to town.

These first two photos are of Esowista reserve’s checkpoint near the Incinerator Rock turnoff. I’d taken them earlier in the week when I’d gone to Ucluelet for a book thing.

All of the reservations in the area are closed to outside visitors including those accessed by boat. Vancouver Island’s Indigenous communities are traditionally more vulnerable to viruses, and statistically (even in the United States right now) they are not likely to get the same level of care as non-Indigenous people if there is a large-scale outbreak.

This sandwich board asks people not to walk along the beach in the direction of Esowista. (This photo and those that follow — as well as the top photo — were taken with my camera)

Being a national park, there were signs everywhere asking people to practice social distancing. Long Beach, at least, felt like a much safer place to be than Tofino.

The signage included sandwich boards at the end of the paths, at parking purchase points, and near the washrooms — which I did not go near as they were not monitored.

There were people everywhere, but it looked to me like they were being responsible guests of the park. They were having fun, acting respectfully, and maintaining social distance.

Part of the reason for the compliance might have been the presence of the parks’ Coastal Stewards. Dogs were on leash, people were asked not to walk towards or surf too close to Esowista, and COVID safety measures were being closely monitored.

There were at least four Coastal Stewards, probably more, communicating over radio. One woman — the steward watching for Esowista trespassers — told me she was a forestry student who had previously been placed at Haida Gwaii. The archipelago is bucket place destination for me, so I talked to her for a bit. She recommended that I watch the movie Edge of the Knife for its supernatural themes. I’ve since learned it’s available on iTunes.

The steward seen in the photo above was disseminating information at one of the main beach access points. She told me it isn’t only a COVID message they are spreading, but that they are educating people about riptides and allowing the sea birds to rest by ensuring people are keeping their dogs on leash (this will prevent wolf conflict too). It looked like a great idea to have them on site. Hopefully, they will do this every year.

I learned from a third park attendant the park’s parking passes are good for four months past their expiry date due to COVID.

As difficult as it was, I was on the road by noon, likely before the beach got a lot busier.

Long Beach had been the right place to stop to in order shake off the negative experiences of Tofino. I had a lot of good moments in my twelve days, of course, but the wild and loose attitudes about COVID were too much for me. The detachment hammered home by the free spirited white woman who told me wearing a mask made her feel like George Floyd because she couldn’t breathe. That is too large a disconnect for me to even address here.

Our cases on Vancouver Island are some of the lowest in Canada, but I can’t see it staying that way for much longer. Sure, summer will end soon, but with so many people from Vancouver in Tofino the conspiracy theories even started to feel real to me after a few days. Is COVID even real? I asked myself. Because the community really should be overrun with cases with the way people were behaving.

The roads to and from Tofino have several construction stop points including the large one-way chokepoint at Kennedy Lake. It feels oddly similar to the waits at other national parks. Is a proper checkpoint what Tofino needs right now to keep things under control? I asked myself. A tollbooth that charges non-locals to enter? A place to check if people have accommodations arranged or if they intend to squat. To collect money in order to cover the damages from illegal campers and to set aside funds for a COVID outbreak. Maybe.

Because one thing’s for certain, with multiple large new buildings arriving like Hotel Zed (which opened its doors yesterday) and Yew Wood condos, the traffic is not going to get any lighter. Vehicle or human impact-wise. Tofino was the busiest I’ve ever seen it. I was glad I brought my bike as the car traffic was big city. Some businesses have already been saying — if you read some of the linked articles here — that they’ve surpassing other years’ earnings in only a few weeks.

We’re now looking at 2-4 years of COVID measures. Maybe it’s time for Tofino to reassess some of its laid back attitudes before it’s too late? As the United States nears 200,000 deaths I’m inclined to believe COVID isn’t a common flu and that we haven’t even experienced our first wave yet. Hopefully I’m wrong. The hospital only has ten beds.

On an ironically lighter note, I’ve acquired a seriously dark tale for a future post. I am also continuing to collect stories of haunted sea vessels from around Vancouver Island and coastal BC. Expect a post or two before Halloween!

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About Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.
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4 Responses to Tofino in the Age of COVID

  1. Greg Rice says:

    A great read Shanon. Glad you were able to leave without a homicide charge levelled against you.

    My experience in Vancouver has been that most people are respectful and wearing masks… however, I’m not part of the demographic that is seeing cases rise.

    I mainly stay at home these days going out to get groceries every couple weeks. I wear a mask in grocery stores (or any other enclosed spaces) and give people a wide birth.

    I’ve found a few Covidiots here and there but for the most part, people here are respecting the rules. Perhaps sometimes it pays to live in a bigger city?

    All the best Shanon!

    • Shanon Sinn says:

      Thanks Greg! These last few months have brought back some of my army traits. Good in some ways, but also done with being polite to stupid people.

      I feel the same about Victoria. I posted a swarm of people entering Walmart after a fire alarm a week or so before mandatory masks. Narrow aisles with one way are ignored a lot when I am at Value Village in the book section. But pretty small infractions considering. I do get out quite a bit. Mostly for bike rides but I visit stores and such wearing a bandana. People are mostly good here. It felt more out of control near the beginning, which might be backwards compared to other places with few cases.

      Hope you’re doing well too!

  2. Claire says:

    Thank you for the well-described and thorough review! I’ve lived here for almost 13 years, and have never seen it this busy, but I think you make a good distinction between the thoughtful travelers – who enter with respect – and the entitled “car camping/party” crowd. I work at a resort here, and after we waited to open in Phase 3 (June 26th) we reduced our available occupancy (and income) by 30% to give everyone a bit more space. We also check ID to ensure visitors are from within Canada, ask the COVID screening questions, and will not allow more people onto the property than we can manage for proper distancing. It’s been hard to deal with some of the push back from last-minute visitors wanting to “look around”, but I find most people appreciate it!

    • Shanon Sinn says:

      Thank you for your comment and feedback Claire! Especially as I had no interactions with any of the resorts. It’s nice to hear yours is operating carefully and I hope they all are. The one photo of all the people inside the business without masks is an example of how even hotel/resort patrons will stop being careful if they aren’t managed. I love that you are asking screening questions and taking ID! Great leadership 🙂

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