FORT BRAGG, 3/21/20 — Tourists have long been beloved as the Mendocino coast’s economic lifeblood, but now the coronavirus pandemic has turned them into potential virus vectors, at least in the eyes of some. The County of Mendocino has issued an order blocking the renting of rooms to all but a narrow range of essential delivery and government personnel. But some businesses and people are still not following the legal orders restricting travel and tourism — and that has irked locals afraid of what outsiders can bring to a community sheltering in place.
County health officials have expressed confidence the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) can truly be slowed in Mendocino County, more so than in the Bay Area or Washington, but controlling travel and lodging is one of the key elements to keeping the health care system and perhaps many people alive.
With that in mind Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) deputies and police officers were set to go door-to-door Friday to motels, hotels and eventually vacation rentals to drive home the message that rentals have to stop.
When this reporter checked on Friday, a trickle of visitors were arriving at hotels, campgrounds, vacation rentals, and to stay in the homes of friends.Yet at the same time, many others were following the rules and other hotels didn’t answer the phone or had empty parking lots. Yes, there is trouble in paradise.
Sheena Simpson of Orange County was already on a vacation in Mendocino as part of a “house-swap” when the shelter-in-place order was issued, leaving her and her husband confused as to whether they should immediately return home or stay in place. She described an incident in which a couple walking Main Street in Mendocino was suddenly accosted when a coastal local shout at them.
In a voice loud enough to be heard by her family from 30 feet away, the man stuck his head out of his home and asked the couple where they were coming from, explained Simpson. “They said Fort Bragg,” she said.
“He said, ‘We don’t want any tourists around here right now,’” Simpson said. The Fort Bragg couple was comprised of a white man and an Asian woman, she said.
“To see that kind of hostility and maybe racism in such a quaint and quiet, nice little town was surprising,” she said.
Simpson was with her partner and their two children, ages 3 and 5, but they were ignored by the man. “[He] might have thought we were local because we were a family.”
Tourists who want to find a place to stay had to look much harder on Friday than they did earlier this week, but rooms were still to be had.
A call to the Surf Motel in Fort Bragg on Friday put this reporter in touch with a man who said he was the manager. The man said 10 of the 54 rooms at the motel were currently rented. Normally all the rooms would be filled. He said he was still taking bookings but was just about to read the order from the county he had downloaded. That order was issued Wednesday.
“If they say no, then I will no longer allow bookings. Do you have any news?,” he asked this reporter. “Shall I still be doing booking?” The order was followed up by a letter the county sent to all lodging owners on Thursday, which specifies all reservations must be canceled for those very narrowly defined essential persons. Homeless local residents can also be housed at motels or people under quarantine.
This reporter recommended the manager contact the county’s COVID hotline for more information. But singling out the Surf would be unfair: A local woman called 12 motels in Fort Bragg this week after the order came out, stopping most business, including the Surf, all of which she said were ready to take her reservations. On Friday most of these said they were not taking reservations, though each interview was begun by informing the person on the phone that a reporter was calling.
However, a quick drive by revealed many motels were at least half full of guests with cars coming and going from parking lots all week. Some people appeared to be checking in Friday afternoon at hotels who had said they were not taking new guests in the phone checks. Could these all be the legal guests — long term, essential business and government personnel or the homeless? Also found on Friday by this reporter were people newly checking into a vacation rental in Cleone, people arriving for a weekend in a friends home nearby and visiting trailer campers. Finding people coming from outside the area was still fairly easy, despite the pleas of health authorities.
Just across the Noyo Bridge from the Surf, at the Harbor Lite Lodge, manager Jason Hurst understood and obeyed the county order. He would normally have all 74 rooms booked, but only two were taken on Friday, one with a long term resident and the other with someone who fit the essential worker criteria. Hurst has been turning down all reservations except to those doing essential business, or on their way home to somewhere. Those on the way home are one of the gray areas in the order.
“These are people caught out, on road, staying one night and moving on,” Hurst said.
The usually bustling, popular hotel overlooking Noyo Harbor is now renting mostly to a handful of truck drivers making local deliveries of products like groceries. Online bookings are limited to one night and anyone who tries to book is contacted and the rules explained, Hurst said. Nearly every reservation has to be turned away or canceled, he said. While many of those contacted complained about the order, Hurst had no such problem.
“It’s all pretty clear in that county order. It’s right there for everybody, not difficult. It sucks, but that’s reality right now,” Hurst said.
Ask if it was unfair that some are not following the rules, Hurst said it wasn’t his role to comment on how others are doing their business.
Supervisor Dan Gjerde asked at Friday morning’s special supervisors meeting (held remotely) about what the county is doing to enforce its order prohibiting motels from continuing to rent to anyone but a narrow range of essential visitors.
“We currently have contacted the three police departments within the county. County counsel, with Public Health and with the health officer have issued a statement along with the warning,” Lt. Shannon Barney from the MCSO said in answer to Gjerde’s question.
“We are basically going door-to-door to the hotels and motels and then we will start to try to locate the B&Bs and those type facilities, to actually go in person and deliver a message that they are not to rent any rooms moving forward without consent.”
The order also says hotels may have to be taken over for surge capacity if the pandemic does speed up locally, he pointed out. The door-to-door action started Friday in the cities and will move out countywide to crack down on room rentals and tourist flows. He said there was one exception.
“They are hotels and motels that have long term residents living in the facility. This will not affect them,” Barney said.
But what of the myriad of other ways that people rent rooms? In the neighborhood where this reporter lives, more than half the homes are second homes or vacation rentals, exchange homes or vacation shares.
Gjerde said the county treasurer’s office has a service called “Host Compliance” created to track down short-term vacation rental operators who do no self-report. Host Compliance may now be vital to finding places where visitors may be defying shelter-in-place orders in Mendocino County and possibly their home county. The job is huge and the stakes high.
On Friday, tourists had fewer options but were still easier to find than many household products. Campgrounds, vacation rentals and some hotels appeared ready to accommodate, phone calls and visits revealed. Simpson came to Mendocino after she booked a house through Home Exchange, a platform where users provide their home and go to another area to do the same for points, not dollars. Her family home in Orange County is not booked at the moment, with visitors from Texas having canceled just before they were to arrive because of the coronavirus. Simpson’s family had planned to go to Ohio to visit cousins but changed to a visit to Mendocino with all that was going on with coronavirus. There was no order restricting the visit when they arrived.
“This seemed like a nice, quiet place to be. It’s beautiful. A good place to be quarantined,” she said. She said the Home Exchange platform hasn’t given her any guidance. About five days ago she got a notice from Home Exchange about changes to policy over points earned and cancellations due to the current situation, but nothing since. A blog posting on the Home Exchange website from Feb. 28 encouraged people to take the opportunity to escape “coronavirus worries.”
Should the family really be visiting right now?
“We are concerned about exposing ourselves and others and have been taking all possible precautions,” she said.
As the shelter in place order hit, the family stocked up on food and then avoided going into town. On the way home they plan only to stop at gas stations.
It was easy to feel sympathy with Mendocino County officials working in a ceaselessly changing environment and participating in press conferences and meetings constantly. Contacting the myriad of companies involved in renting vacation and temporary housing seems a near impossible task, with each having office closures and long waits on hold when called.
Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Noemi Doohan acknowledged the problem with lodging at a press conference earlier in the week.
“We have received troubling reports that some businesses are ignoring the shelter in place order. The health officer order is a legal document that will be enforced…As an example I have ordered the closure of a business that knowingly continued to operate in a manner that created a risk to public health,” she said at a press conference earlier this week.
That was Hotel Breakers & The Vue Kitchen on the South Coast. Neda Ghassemi, who manages the property, said she has been unable to find out how they violated the shelter in place order or when and how they can reopen. She said she had called the county multiple times and had yet to find out. Why just the one motel when so many are busy?
Many locals worry about the continued flow in and out of tourists. In a Facebook post, Rebecca Jarrett, who is concerned about the safety of her 84-year-old mother, reported that she had telephoned 12 large hotels in Fort Bragg
“All are open and accepting new immediate reservations. They have no intention of closing unless ordered. Many downplayed the shelter in place order. Some were giving misinformation (restaurants are open). One was still serving breakfast to guests. I called public health and relayed my findings. Time for local leadership to step up and close it down.”
In an interview, Jarrett said she asked each of the 12 the same set of questions. She posted the names of all 12 on Facebook.
“1.) Are you open? 2.) Will you be closing? 3.) Are you taking reservations for the near future? 4.) Whats the situation “up there? It was not exactly a brilliant investigation,” she said.
She posted her results on Facebook in several groups, contacted Fort Bragg officials, Gjerde and county public health.
She hadn’t heard back directly when contacted Thursday but had heard about some of what the very busy health department was doing.
“It seems like things have gotten jump started to have lodgings comply with the order. I just want us all to be as safe as possible and to get back to “normal” with a solid tourist season. And as few deaths as possible.”
She did find some hotels who were following the law and made no effort to call all the hotels. The North Cliff Hotel in Fort Bragg and Hill House Inn in Mendocino were among those strictly complying with the law, she found.
“We will see what local leadership does from her out. Meanwhile I’m staying at home for the safety of my mother and others who may be vulnerable.”
County Health officer Dr. Noemi Mimi Doohan said she doesn’t think that the virus has yet spread widely in Mendocino County, and that the shelter-in-place order is providing valuable mitigation, despite the first positive test happening at a health care center to a young woman along the south coast. Health authorities have not seen one key sign here in Mendocino County of the pandemic arriving — a pneumonia cluster. Doohan says a careful eye is kept out for any such cluster, but so far that has not happened. The county has also kept a very close eye on nursing homes and seen nothing there also.
This is why they are working so hard on shelter in place, she said. It can still work here.
Doohan said shelter in place rules will likely get tighter and all the counties will work more closely together as time goes forward. She said there is hope to keep our health care system functioning if people really work to flatten the curve.
“We are sitting as a firewall between the Bay Area and Seattle. We are in a position, and I believe this passionately, that we can stop and slow the spread into our vulnerable regions based on what we do here,” Doohan told supervisors at Friday’s meeting.
She said with maximal efforts here to shelter in place and practice social distancing, Mendocino could be spared a health care system overload and also help other rural areas do the same.
Note on the photo: On Friday night, The Beachcomber Motel had a mostly full parking lot as it had all week. Hotels are currently only allowed to rent to essential persons such as government and working drivers and line crews, the homeless and people quarantined there with specific orders from county health. Everyone who comes to the Beachcomber must sign that they are essential workers and prove that, a reliable source told The Voice. A call to the Beachcomber on Friday was not immediately returned. Another call was made Saturday and left on the answering machine of the general manager Jon Glidewell.