Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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Can you social distance in a boat? Idaho rafting guides work to keep businesses afloat


During the coronavirus pandemic, the outdoors have become a safe haven for many Idahoans. Trails and campgrounds bustled as officials urged recreators to keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and others. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reminded hunters that turkey and bear hunting seasons remained open, and anglers tried to practice “social fishtancing” in their own boats or on the shore.

Heading into their busiest season, Idaho rafting and boating guides face a unique challenge in the outdoors world. How can they keep their businesses afloat — literally — while also keeping their customers safe in the close confines of a boat or raft?

Several Idaho rafting outfitters told the Statesman they’re making changes to normal business operations to keep guests and employees safe, and they worked with health officials and legislators to craft their own COVID-19 safety criteria. But the pandemic has set back reservations and diverted rafters’ focus on rivers as they try to determine what a float season will look like this summer.

“Normally this time of year, river outfitters would be … forecasting what flows and conditions are looking like with the melt, what that means for rafting and kayaking opportunities,” said Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, in a phone interview. “One really telling thing about the situation we’re in is that’s not happening. Nobody’s putting out river forecasts and streamflow projections because they’re all trying to work to figure out how they can operate.”

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All of Idaho’s outdoor outfitting and guiding businesses were struck by the pandemic. Stay-home orders, restrictions on interstate travel and hunting/fishing licenses, and other safety measures meant hunting and fishing outfitters lost hundreds of customers. As Idaho and other states roll back restrictions, some outfitters can resume normal operations, albeit with a bit more distance. For rafting guides, fishing guides and jet boat operators, whose businesses are centered on small watercraft, the path forward is a little trickier.

“We can separate horses,” said Steve Zettel, owner of Idaho Wilderness Company in Challis. “We can separate hikers. But when we get down to the nitty gritty of a drift boat, of a small fishing boat, of a raft … that’s the crux of the situation. That’s the conundrum.” An average raft is about 10 to 12 feet long and can fit eight to 10 people, including guides. Zettel said he’s limited to 30 people per trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and a trip can often include several parties that aren’t from the same group or even the same area.

“The norm is a mixed group,” Zettel said, usually made up of couples and family groups. “… Even if you say it’s all one group it might be the Smith family reunion but two came from Cleveland and 10 from Cincinnati and so on and so forth.” Zettel said he’ll likely keep his oar and paddle boats around half capacity — one guide and up to four guests — and try to encourage more guests to use single or tandem inflatable kayaks to keep parties separated.

Erik Weiseth, managing partner for Orange Torpedo in Riggins, said 70% of the rafting company’s guests already use inflatable kayaks.

“It is the ultimate social distancing river craft,” Weiseth said, adding that Orange Torpedo will try to organize rafting groups to keep different parties in separate watercraft.

Some outfitters are going a step further. Mike Lancaster oversees the guided whitewater rafting activities at Tamarack Resort in Donnelly. The resort announced that it would open its summer offerings, including ski lift tours, mountain biking and boat rentals. Officials said whitewater trips could start mid-June.

Lancaster said guides will wear full personal protective equipment on trips, and Tamarack will no longer offer buffet-style lunches as a way to reduce virus transmission. Tamarack has also rented larger buses to create more room between guests on their way to rafting trips.

“Historically on rafting trips we are mixing different groups, both in the buses and on the rafts when we’re at full capacity,” Lancaster said in a phone interview. “With COVID and social distancing, we’ll need to spread people out. (We’ll have) half capacity in our buses at the most, and only private groups in the raft.” Tamarack is in a better place than many rafting outfitters to seriously curtail its rafting operations thanks to income from its ski operations and numerous other summer activities. For some smaller operators, the pandemic has been a serious squeeze on income, part of what IOGA’s Lieberman said is a potential “extinction event” for outfitting businesses in Idaho.

Lieberman said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced legislation in Congress to offer relief to outfitters and other outdoor industries, but the effort hasn’t gained support from Idaho’s congressional delegation. Weiseth said the legislation would be helpful for Idaho’s summer wildfire prevention, as well as a life raft for some local outfitters.

“There are a number of outfitters who aren’t opening their doors (this season) and may not open their doors again,” Weiseth said.

He said scheduling is picking back up at Orange Torpedo, but the company lost a huge swath of its prime spring booking season to coronavirus.

“This really busy time of the year typically has been dead,” Weiseth said. “The phones were not ringing and if they were, you were worried that it was somebody calling to cancel.”

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Some customers with reservations later in the summer pleaded with Weiseth to keep their reservations on the books — which he was happy to do. But even with the spike in customer interest, some outfitters said they’re wary of potential liability issues as they allow customers back. They said Idaho law doesn’t offer much protection for outfitting businesses in the event that a guest is injured, and they worry they could be held responsible if a customer later comes down with COVID-19 — even if it’s not clear where the guest became infected.

Zettel and Lieberman said they’re trying to talk with Idaho legislators to create a “categorical exclusion for liability for COVID-19” to ease those concerns.

“How do you prove that a guy did or didn’t sneeze on somebody?” Lieberman said. “Those lawsuits aren’t necessarily about who wins. Most outfitters would crumble under a lawsuit — and do — because they can’t afford it.” The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association has not yet made strides on the liability front, but association members formed a COVID-19 workgroup that met with health care professionals and other officials around the state — including Jim Souza, co-chair of Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus testing task force and chief medical officer for St. Luke’s Health System — to create a set of best practices for the industry as it reopens.

“We as an industry … are in communication with each other and with the state,” said Weiseth, who was part of the association workgroup. “… (We’re trying to say) here’s the ways we’re going to be able to accommodate all the guidelines that are out there and still do this thing that we do.” Lieberman said the state officially adopted a set of outfitting industry-specific guidelines that include protocols for keeping guests and employees safe at campsites, when serving food and during outdoor activities. Idaho Rebounds, the state reopening program, has published similar guidelines for other industries, including gyms, bars and movie theaters, but the outfitting protocols have slightly more lax language than some other industries. For example, the outfitting guidelines say “clients will be in groups from one to sometimes 50 or more.” It also suggests outfitters work to maintain 6-foot social distancing “when possible.” In contrast, businesses like bars, restaurants and gyms have been instructed to keep a minimum 6-foot distance between patrons at all times and to discontinue the use of any facilities that don’t allow for 6 feet of distance.

The discrepancy may be due to the fact that the outdoors have been touted as safer during the pandemic due to better ventilation and more space for distance. Last month, the Los Angeles Times published an article declaring whitewater rafting “could be the safest way to a family vacation this summer.” The New York Times pointed to a small study from China showing only two of 1,245 COVID-19 patients’ infections could be linked to the outdoors.

Zettel said the outdoors is “a natural therapy against any virus.” And he’s ready to share the cure.

“Let’s redefine social distancing in the wilderness as something different,” Zettel said. “It’s not a mandatory 6 feet anymore. Is people in a raft with me better than 6 feet apart in Manhattan? I think it is.”