By RACHAL PINKERTON
TRI-CITIES — While most counties in Washington state have been able to move on to Phase 2, three counties are stuck in Phase 1: Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties. These three counties are known for their agricultural and wine industries.
COVID-19 has forced wineries to close their doors. Many have modified their services to allow for them to continue bringing some revenue in. COVID-19 has also brought tourism to a halt, affecting both wineries and businesses in general.
“Wine is a big draw to the Tri-Cities,” said Michael Novakovich, president and CEO of the tourist information center Visit Tri-Cities. “It is a lovely amenity. It can bring people in.”
While the COVID-19 closures have been devastating for businesses, wine makers, like other businesses, have gotten creative, doing things like curbside service and virtual tastings.
Novakovich said that recently he was invited to be involved in one of the virtual tastings.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Novakovich said.
One winery in the Tri-Cities area started making hand sanitizer as a way to help the community and to help bring some much-needed cash flow.
“It was an interesting pivot in interesting times,” Novakovich said.
While the Tri-Cities is stuck in Phase 1, Visit Tri-Cities is promoting the area as a place to explore in the future.
“We are planting the seeds of future travel,” Novakovich said.
Novakovich said that the Tri-Cities is a driving destination for residents of the Puget Sound area. They come to the area to visit wine country and participate in outdoor recreation. Visitors have the option of visiting estate wineries and spending time among the grape vines or visiting the wineries that are located next to each other in more urban areas.
The lack of sporting events has also had an impact on the wineries. Novakovich said some wineries cater to the parents of youth athletes.
“Mom and Dad come out and enjoy the wine while the kids go out and play,” Novakovich said. “Some wineries love it when we bring kids into town.”
Novakovich hopes that the area will soon be able to move to Phase 2, which will allow sports practices to resume. Games will not be allowed until Phase 3.
During the wait for the area to move to Phase 2, there is an area in Kennewick, known as the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village, where local families can go to pick up wine curbside, get some take-out from local food vendors, go for a hike or enjoy public art.
Novakovich said that Visit Tri-Cities is partnering with area businesses to promote safe operations when the area is able to move to Phase 2. He also said that the organization is promoting the wearing of face masks in an effort to decrease the number of COVID-19 cases and allow the area to move forward.
“I had a colleague of mine who was equating it to seat belts,” Novakovich said.
Novakovich was in high school when the seat belt law was passed. After having spent his whole life not wearing a seat belt, he was very resistant to wearing one.
“The threat of a ticket didn’t sound awesome,” Novakovich said. “It became a habit. I think we need to adopt seat belt culture for masks. Our counties desperately want to open. Hopefully we can get to a place that people will adopt wearing them.”
A friend of Novakovich has said on the subject, “Be mad, but wear your mask.”
“I think we have some good opportunities to preserve community health,” Novakovich said.
Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at email@example.com.