Following three months of dormancy to curb the spread of COVID-19, the heart of Calaveras County’s tourism industry has been defibrillated.
On June 12, short-term lodging, restaurants, bars and wineries were given the go-ahead to do business again under restrictive state guidelines to keep visitors and locals safe.
The Highway 4 corridor had already been flooded with out-of-towners over the past few months, and local business owners are forecasting a busy summer.
Sierra Nevada Adventure Co. (SNAC) had the “best May in the history of our business,” with outdoor enthusiasts flocking to the county to backpack, rock-climb, kayak and paddle board, owner Shawn Seal told the Enterprise Tuesday.
Seal said he thinks most of the new customers are wanting to escape more congested areas.
“Any sporting goods stores helping people get out and away from crowds and into nature have been slammed,” he said.
Seal and other business owners the Enterprise spoke with said Arnold’s population has increased as well, since second homeowners are choosing the area over their primary residences.
“We’re hearing it every day for various reasons,” Seal said. “Even while we were closed, we knew that Arnold had a lot more residents because kids aren’t in school, parents aren’t going to work … might as well be up here.”
Some recreation areas in the county have been crowded in recent months, drawing concerns that COVID-19 could’ve been spreading more easily.
The Natural Bridges Trailhead in Vallecito was closed earlier this year, since its narrow cave walls make social distancing impractical, said New Melones Lake Park Manager Cynthia Davenport.
But closing the gate didn’t keep large crowds from coming in recent months, Davenport said, adding that trailhead staff reported that someone had cut a hole in a nearby fence to access the trail.
The bureau opened the bathrooms because people were using the ground, Davenport said.
She said the trailhead could be open by next week, pending approval from the federal Bureau of Reclamation Office.
Camping and day use at the Tuttletown Recreation Area on New Melones could be open next week as well, while the Glory Hole Recreation Area could be closed for at least another month due to needed maintenance on water conveyance infrastructure.
The Stanislaus National Forest reopened the Lake Alpine complex and Spicer Campground on June 12 for “dispersed camping.” All but one seasonal road in the Calaveras Ranger District have been opened in recent weeks as well.
The county has seen an uptick in visitors since June 12, with short-term rentals booking stays again.
Cedar Creek Realty – manager of about 90 vacation rentals in Arnold, Murphys and Dorrington – will be among those back in business this weekend.
Co-owner and broker Kelley Stellar said the phone has been ringing off the hook since vacation rentals were given the green light to reopen.
“It’s been crazy,” Stellar said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think the whole summer is going to be that way. A lot of people aren’t wanting to get on airplanes.”
Stellar said Cedar Creek Realty has had to make a number of costly changes to adjust to the new norms.
All of its staff are now equipped with personal protective equipment, and the company has spent thousands of dollars on new mattress comforters that can be washed at high temperatures after each stay.
She corroborated that some Bay Area-based property owners Cedar Creek works with have opted to move back to their second homes in Calaveras County rather than continue renting out.
Murphys Vacation Rentals started booking visitors on June 12, owner Anna Gutierrez told the Enterprise Tuesday.
Before the pandemic, the company was managing about 27 rental properties between Murphys and Angels Camp. Since that time, some property owners are no longer renting, and others have sold.
“We have several owners that are nervous to open back up, so they’re still holding their homes for their own personal use to wait and see how things go,” Gutierrez said. “I think it was a scare to a lot of homeowners that rent to AirBnB. They had mortgages and utilities to pay. I’m wondering if we will end up seeing a lot of second homeowners rent their homes long-term instead of short-term.”
Gutierrez estimated that her income for 2020 will be about half of what it was last year, due to three months of lost sales; sunken rent, utilities and mortgage payments; and costly procedures to meet new sanitation requirements.
She said she was able to hire back cleaning staff, but one was hesitant to return to work due to potential health risks.
Some of her staff received unemployment checks within two weeks of losing their jobs, while others are still waiting, Gutierrez said.
Calaveras Visitors Bureau (CVB) Executive Director Martin Huberty was back in the office off Main Street in Angels Camp for the first time in three months Monday.
Governed by a nine-member board of directors from various business sectors, the non-profit association promotes tourism in Calaveras County.
A 2019 SMG Consulting report estimated that for every dollar the CVB spends, it generates $56 for the county – a testament to the county’s reliance on tourists as a steady revenue source. Visitors to the CVB’s GoCalaveras.com website who were influenced to make the trip spent approximately $25 million in travel spending in Calaveras County between June 2018 and March 2019, the report found.
The bureau closed its doors in late March after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Based on decreases in Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenue projections for the upcoming fiscal year from its two primary funders – the City of Angels Camp (down 41%) and the county (down 50%) – the bureau will be operating under a tight budget.
The tax applies to guests staying overnight at hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns and short-term vacation rentals. Although it’s discretionary, the funding has historically been split evenly between fire districts, the Sheriff’s Office, Public Works and the CVB.
Only one other staff member is at the office for the time being, Huberty said, adding he’d be seeking cost-saving measures in the coming months.
At this time, the bureau is requesting that visitors respect whatever safety precautions individual businesses may be taking to curb the spread of COVID-19.
He said, for instance, there isn’t a consensus among Murphys businesses on whether patrons should be required to wear a protective face mask.
Restrictions could be reintroduced should a case spike occur, and the CVB hopes to do its part in ensuring visitors have the information they need to stay safe, Huberty said.
“It could turn around just as quickly as it’s come back, and we want to be smart and do it safely and sustainably going forward, working with the county to make sure we’re doing it step by step,” Huberty said.