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Rick Steves refunding 2020 tours, maintaining payroll

Rick Steves sitting on the fountain in downtown Edmonds. (Photo from Brian Soergel, Edmonds Beacon)

Travel guide and guru Rick Steves travels to Europe every year around this time, but the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping him home in Edmonds for the first time in 30 years. He doesn’t mind it though, despite graciously refunding thousands of European vacations, because he’s learned how to cut onions.

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“I’m doing fine. I feel like I’m almost cheating the pandemic living in Edmonds. I’ve got a wonderful quarantine partner, so I’m not lonely, and right now I’m at home exploring places where I’m steep on the learning curve,” Steves said.

One would think that such a traveled man would know a little bit about everything, but Steves says he can’t cook.

“I’ve sort of made a point of not knowing how to cook my whole life” he chuckled as he explained. “I’ve been in this house for 10 years and I’ve honestly never turned on the oven until this crisis.”

But now, he’s tossing handmade pasta like chefs in his favorite country, Italy (you have to use olive oil or it’ll stick together), and has discovered a newfound love for onions.

“I have never felt the sensation of a serrated knife cutting through a nice, crispy onion until now and that’s a beautiful thing. That’s a beautiful thing. And I would not have had that had it not been for this crisis.”

Steves is just trying to find the beauty of being kept at home, but is quick to acknowledge the privilege of living in a region like the Pacific Northwest and has, as of late, taken up advocating for local businesses at the mercy of landlords who are not giving any breaks during the pandemic.

“I’m very sadly impressed by how we’re often able to ignore that, be blind to that, and deal with our own problems. We have serious problems, I have serious problems. I’m trying to keep 100 people on a payroll with no revenue. But there are people around me and there are people south of the border who have far more difficult situations. And right now for anybody to do anything but try to help their neighbor during this crisis — I don’t understand anybody who tries to profit at the expense of anybody during this crisis. I don’t understand.”

True to his word, Steves and his employees are working on refunding all 24,000 tours that had been booked for this year.

“This year was going to be our best year ever, and we’ve been working full time just to process all those refunds. We’re doing it in a very straight and generous and clean way. There’s no credit, there’s nothing like that, it’s just everybody gets all their money back.”

If that’s not enough on his plate, Steves recently wrote a piece for The Edmonds Beacon imploring the reader to imagine a traffic-free downtown core. His vision calls for a block in each direction of the Main Street fountain to be off limits to cars so that it feels more like an Italian piazza, where locals and tourists alike can wander freely and shop and eat at their leisure.

His idea could help jump-start the Edmonds economy post-pandemic. He explains that shops and restaurants could double capacity while maintaining physical distancing by spilling out onto the sidewalks and no cars would be in the way of patrons.

“What makes Edmonds a good place to live is the vibrancy of our downtown and the community spirit. And if we lost that, and if all these businesses go out, and the only thing that survives are sales outlets for giant corporations, our community is going to be less for it.”

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Steves believes his businesses will emerge from this pandemic. While he has already reduced payroll, and plans to further reduce payroll into 2021, he’s committed to not laying off any of his employees and continuing to provide them healthcare.

“Right now, it’s all hands on deck. We’ve got to look out for each other. As a business leader in my town, I’m trying to do that the best I can.”

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