A seemingly endless stream of cars wound eastward through the foothill highways this Fourth of July weekend, bringing boats, cash and potential viruses to the Mother Lode region.
Warning signs staked outside outdoor recreation areas advising visitors to remain 6 feet apart didn’t appear to have much sway, nor did Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide mask mandate.
At Pinecrest Lake, out-of-towners descended upon Tuolumne County’s most popular public venue, where restrictions were fully lifted just two weeks ago.
“On a normal holiday weekend, Pinecrest becomes the biggest city in Tuolumne County,” Stanislaus National Forest spokesperson Diana Fredlund said on Monday.
Yet Fourth of July 2020 seemed busier than usual, she said, with an estimated 15,000 visitors or more flocking to the county of just 54,000.
Park rangers and employees at the lake were not present to develop an exact count, she added. They skipped patrolling during the day to avoid contact with the unmasked masses on the overcrowded beaches for their own “health and safety,” restricting trash pickup to the early morning hours.
In Calaveras County, tourists from the Central Valley and the Bay Area packed into the caves at Natural Bridges – a site that requires a short hike to reach and offers little room for personal space.
The visitors interviewed had the same story to tell: there was nothing to do in their home cities this Fourth of July weekend.
One man, who had traveled from Stockton with his extended family, said he’d read about Natural Bridges on Facebook a few weeks ago and decided to visit. The post had listed outdoor venues that were open during the pandemic.
“Since they don’t allow you to be at the park, you got to go outside (the county),” another man from his group said.
As of July 4, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Sacramento and Contra Costa were just a few counties that shut down sectors including dine-in restaurants, wine tasting, zoos and family entertainment venues once again due to increasing rates of COVID-19 cases.
San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties have each reported more than 2,000 cases and 40 deaths within populations of over half-a-million; while Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties – home to roughly 140,000 people combined and just three hospitals – have thus far remained open and off the state’s monitoring list with zero deaths and case numbers below 60 in each county.
Though a recent “significant outbreak” in Calaveras County prompted Health Officer Dean Kelaita, MD, to warn locals against congregating during the Fourth of July weekend, the introduction of some summer fun to the community hasn’t been all bad for its residents.
Sheriff’s offices in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties reported no notable calls during the holiday weekend, barring complaints of fireworks, which are illegal in Tuolumne County.
For local businesses just getting back on their feet, many of those that rely on visitor dollars have seen steady traffic since reopening in early May.
At Glory Hole Sports in Angels Camp, owner Gene Hildebrand said he sold more fuel on July 3 than any other single day in memory. Water tubes, wake boards and deli sandwiches were also extremely popular among the many newcomers who passed through in the days leading up to the holiday.
“A lot of people have been cooped up, getting cabin fever,” Hildebrand said.
His store has been busy almost seven days a week since the governor’s stay-at-home order was relaxed. After being forced by the county’s health department to cease sales of fishing and tackle gear during the month of April, Hildebrand says the uptick in business this summer has been “much appreciated.”
COVID-19 is a concern, he said, but he believes his business has taken the necessary precautions by limiting capacity, installing protective panels and requesting that customers use hand sanitizer before entering. Like many stores in the area, Glory Hole Sports has a voluntary policy when it comes to wearing masks.
Barbara Blume, owner of Creative Cookware in the tourist hub of Murphys, has been doing well enough in sales this summer that she was able to close her store July 4.
Safety was “definitely a concern,” she said, with potential hordes of shoppers coming through on Saturday, but she added that folks taking up baking during the stay-at-home order has been so good for her business that she didn’t need the extra day of sales.
Amy Redman, who worked Saturday at Mad About Shoes in Murphys, said the holiday seemed less busy than past years, with visitors likely skipping the shops for outdoor pursuits.
This year, the town's main Fourth of July draw—its annual fireworks show at Ironstone Vineyards—was canceled, like most, due to the pandemic.