Since Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 19 shelter-in-place order, new social distancing norms for curbing the novel coronavirus have thrown a wrench into the gears of Calaveras County’s normally thriving tourism industry. For domestic and service workers, it’s meant filing for unemployment and waiting on a stimulus check to pay the bills.
Around the time the order came down from the state, ironically enough, the Calaveras Visitors Bureau (CVB) had been actively discouraging visitors from exploring the county’s rustic treasures, big trees and renowned wineries. Shortly thereafter, the bureau closed, in part, to prevent any confusion that it might be marketing the county to out-of-towners. That left two full-time and four part-time staff furloughed until further notice.
The broader implications for county services will be a shortfall in revenues generated by the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), which applies to guests staying overnight at hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns and short-term vacation rentals.
For the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the county budgeted for nearly $1.5 million in TOT revenues, according to Deputy County Administrative Officer Christa Von Latta. It’s received $1.2 million since July.
Although it’s discretionary, the funding has historically been split evenly between fire districts, the Sheriff’s Office, Public Works and the CVB.
“It’s been a really tough couple of weeks,” said Visitors Bureau Executive Director Martin Huberty. TOT revenues from the county and Angels Camp provide the bulk of the bureau’s funding – about $300,000 to $350,000 annually. “I can’t count on TOT coming in at all for March, April and most likely May, and I did not want to jeopardize us not having funds to help draw people back to Calaveras when the time comes ... The CVB is a strong team and all of the employees see this as the only way forward.”
The busy season was just getting started, too – the Visitors Bureau typically sees about 1,600 people in the Angels Camp visitors center in April, Huberty said.
On March 26, a Calaveras County Public Health directive clarified that hotels, motels, condominiums, campgrounds and other short-term rental units should be ceasing operations, unless they’re being used for isolating or quarantining homeless individuals or essential workers.
As of 2018, 14% of Calaveras County’s workforce was employed in the leisure and hospitality industry, based on state data. That’s 1,390 people.
Those employed by property management companies for short-term rentals have been hit hard in recent weeks.
Teresa Dozier, who cleans vacation rentals in Dorrington, has filed for unemployment.
She’s been fortunate to keep maintaining two private properties in Blue Lake Springs, but her income has been cut in half, and it’s not nearly enough to cover rent, a car payment and health insurance.
“It’s been rough,” Dozier told the Enterprise Monday.
For now, Dozier’s landlord has knocked $300 off the monthly rent, and she’s hoping a federal stimulus check will cover rent for May and June.
Although some house-cleaning jobs are available, Dozier is trying to be extra cautious around areas that could be harboring the coronavirus.
“There’s some people that are still cleaning homes that people are coming from the Bay Area and staying in, but I’m not taking the chance,” Dozier said.
Murphys Vacation Rentals has had 123 cancellations since mid-March, more recently including bookings for May – its biggest rental month of the year, according to Owner Anna Gutierrez.
That would have meant “123 cleanings for all our cleaners and payments going to owners that have mortgages to pay,” Gutierrez said.
Huberty estimated there are over 300 vacation rentals in Calaveras County. Murphys Vacation rentals manages 27 of them between Murphys and Angels Camp.
Its two office staff and six house cleaners have all been laid off, leaving Gutierrez fielding calls and managing cancellations seven days a week.
On top of mortgages, property owners are sinking monthly television and internet bills, Gutierrez added.
Although it may appear on Airbnb and other rental sites that Murphys Vacation Rentals has homes available for rent, reservations are only being taken for essential workers – mainly doctors and nurses looking to quarantine themselves, Gutierrez emphasized.
Gutierrez told the Enterprise Monday that none of the properties she manages have occupants at the moment.
Airbnb has offered some relief, but not enough to keep company staff employed.
On a positive note, some vacationers have opted to not take a refund.
“I have been really impressed with our customers,” Gutierrez said. “So many instead of cancelling are allowing us to keep it as a credit and book later in the year.”
Even if one wanted to visit Calaveras County just for the day, they’re being advised not to by law enforcement and community leaders.
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio asked visitors to stay home in an April 1 announcement, following suit with messages issued by law enforcement in neighboring counties.
“If you want Calaveras County to remain the vacation getaway it has been in the past, we all must act to ensure a speedy recovery,” he said.
Mike Johnson, chief of the Ebbetts Pass Fire Department said that despite the uptick in second homeowners returning to the area after Newsom’s order, the call volume has been low over the past few weeks.
“This is a time of year where we see a lull anyway, when the ski area shuts down and before Memorial Day, we have a real quiet season,” Johnson said. “My understanding is the curve hasn’t flattened yet, so we need to continue to prepare for more cases.”
That could be because people are following social distancing protocols, but “what we can’t track is people that traveled from one area some distance into another area,” Johnson said.
On that issue, District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway emphasized that for everyone’s safety, second homeowners shouldn’t be travelling back and forth between houses.
For those concerned with leaving their homes empty, the Sheriff’s Office is offering extra patrol requests for checking vacant homes or business offices, according to an April 3 announcement.
The Stanislaus National Forest, under pressure from local elected officials, has closed recreation areas and numerous forest roads.
On April 2, the Calaveras County Water District (CCWD) closed White Pines Park, including its playground, picnic areas, beaches and bathrooms.
Businesses that rely on the steady cash flow of visitors year round – wineries, restaurants and outdoor recreation stores, to name a few – have been severely impacted by the social distancing directives.
At least 34 local restaurants have temporarily closed, and those open are only offering takeout or curbside pick-up, based on a guide developed by the County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
Murphys Pizza Co. Owner Emilie Bouma said business was “way down” for March and she expects the same for April.
“We rely so heavily on tourism, so weekends are pretty tough,” Bouma said. “It’s prime ski season, spring break would’ve been this week, and we missed out on the biggest day of the year with Irish Day canceled.”
Still, Bouma remains “hopeful to get through the next few months.”
Bouma’s staff are mostly young part-timers, and she’s been able to keep non-high school employees that have bills to pay employed with regular hours.
Shawn Seale, owner of Sierra Nevada Adventure Company (SNAC) in Arnold saw business spike on March 19, with skiers and snowboarders rushing to the slopes after a snowstorm.
Later that night, the governor’s order for all non-essential businesses to close came as a shock to Seale, but SNAC complied.
Seale said manufacturers have been kind to SNAC, extending payment times for bills and remaining in constant communication to evaluate their needs.
“It is heartwarming to have all of us, from the manufacturer to the retailers, seeing we’re in this together,” Seale said.
As much as social distancing has impacted business, “I think it’s the right thing,” Seale said. “In Calaveras County that was one of the first things people wanted to do was get outside and hike and boat and fish, and the county I guess had to react to that overwhelming urge.”