Rural California towns urge tourists to stay home to curb coronavirus spread

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The current homepage on Mammoth Lakes Tourism’s website. Photo courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism. Graphic design credit: Robin Hercia.

Before COVID-19, March would’ve been one of the busiest times of year at Joshua Tree National Park. The days are getting longer, it’s not too hot, and spring break would be in full effect.

“Normally we would be doing over 100 trips a month. You know, 500 to 1000 people come through our doors,” says Sabra Purdy, who runs a climbing business called Cliffhanger Guides in Joshua Tree. 

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Sabra Purdy (in front) leading a rock climbing trip in Joshua Tree before the coronavirus outbreak hit California. Photo credit: Sabra Purdy.

But instead, she and her staff of a dozen climbing guides are turning visitors away.

“We made the difficult decision to shut our door because we felt like it was really irresponsible to encourage people from out of town to come and mingle with the community,” says Purdy. “We are not prepared to deal with this medical emergency.” 

She and other residents started a hashtag called “#staythefuckhome” to spread the message.

But not everyone’s taking the hint. As the first big wave of COVID-19 infections hit San Francisco and LA, some city residents are packing up and heading for wilder parts of California.

On March 17, the National Park Service closed Joshua Tree National Park to car traffic to dissuade visitors.

“Saturday and Sunday, things were really busy in town and at the entrances to the park,” says John Lauretig, who heads a nonprofit called Friends of Joshua Tree. “There were huge parking problems and issues because folks couldn't go into the park. They pulled off on the side of the road and were creating problems for the local folks. I guess a couple people woke up and had people camping in their front yards.”

Lauretig says the madness has calmed down since last weekend. He was hiking in the park this week and only saw a handful of people in the backcountry.

Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Kathryn Barnes

But it’s not just weekend warriors looking for a quick jaunt to nature. Some are coming to stay for the long haul at rentals or their own vacation homes. 

In the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, locals are afraid out-of-towners will burden their small mountain community during the health crisis. 

“We have a 17-bed hospital,” says Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless. “There is concern about second homeowners choosing to come to Mammoth Lakes, where we have incredibly limited health care resources.”

With Mammoth Mountain and other nearby resorts closed due to COVID-19, travelers are banned from staying in hotels, motels, and condos in town. As a result, traffic is down. Corless hopes it stays that way.

“None of our healthcare systems have the means to face this if we don't all stay at home and try to flatten the curve,” says Corless. “But it's very frightening, I think, for all our residents being in such an isolated location. We can't go for help five minutes away. We don't have a critical care facility within an hour. We're isolated and our resources are incredibly limited.”

Even the region’s online marketing strategy has changed in light of the illness. Head to Visitmammoth.com and the first message you’ll see is “Your adventure can wait.”



Credits

Producer:
Kathryn Barnes

Reporter:
Matt Guilhem