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Sonoma County’s Russian River and coast beset with unease as summer season begins amid pandemic

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The arrival of Memorial Day weekend in western Sonoma County conjures images of raft flotillas descending the Russian River, sun-dazed beachgoers planted along the coast, jammed highways by day and restaurants and bars crowded with patrons by night.

The holiday marks the beginning of summer, and, for many, the west county’s refreshing waters, majestic redwood forest and rugged coast offer no better place to enjoy it.

And this year, even during a global pandemic, with local and statewide stay-home orders the law of the land, most everyone still expects a flood of people to the region, as temperatures soar toward the century mark and the restless mood that has seized the masses drives them to open air.

Already, the stream of day-trippers and overnight guests discernible in recent weeks has provoked unease in this region where tourist dollars drive much of the economy. Overnight lodging for all but essential guests is supposed to be shut down, restaurants are still off limits save for takeout and patio service, and access to river and ocean beaches, along with other amenities, is limited.

And yet ­— “People never stopped coming here,” said Kelly Martin, manager at Pelican Plaza Grocery & Deli in Bodega Bay. Many, if not most, are from the Sacramento area, Stockton and other Central Valley towns, and parts of the Bay Area, she and others said.

The rising traffic, as in tourist destinations across the nation, has fueled an existential conflict for residents and business people here, pitting their sense of health and safety amid the pandemic against the need to shore up their livelihoods while the days are long and warm.

For many, these are the weeks that can make or break the year, said county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district takes in the lower Russian River corridor, plus the 55-mile Sonoma Coast, all of it closed and barricaded to visitors, with limited access only for nearby residents who must arrive at the beach by foot or bike.

“There is so much tension in the community right now you could cut it with a knife,” Hopkins said.

Resorts throughout the region remain closed. Canoe and kayak rentals are still shut down. Major events, including the Lazy Bear Week in Guerneville and the Bohemian Grove encampment in Monte Rio, both scheduled for July, were canceled. Vacation rentals remain prohibited, as well, though local residents believe some are still being rented illegally.

Even before the virus hit, much of the business community in the lower river region was in recovery mode from a nightmarish year that began with historic flooding and was capped by an unprecedented wildfire, power blackouts and the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people.

Loosened county restrictions, including the resumption of patio service for restaurants, breweries and wine tasting rooms that serve food, have offered a glimmer of hope to some in the local hospitality sector, which has shed tens of thousands of jobs since March.

But the prospect of more outsiders coming through the region isn’t sitting well with many. Small communities dotted throughout the area have high numbers of retired people who are vulnerable to poor health outcomes if they fall ill with COVID-19. Many already have had their fill with those who would flout social distancing guidance and mandates to wear face coverings.

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River residents “are looking out for each other,” said Doug Gould, 59.

Visitors disregard the rules

Yet encounters with visitors can be unavoidable, particularly at food markets on the coast and along the river, with so little else open, and nowhere more than the Guerneville Safeway, the area’s only supermarket. There, newly marked one-way aisles and mask requirements notwithstanding, locals frequently complain of strangers who refuse to follow the rules.

Then they go out into the community and ignore the health orders, Gould said, especially young people who come to town, park in a neighborhood and cross to the river despite beach closures.

“For some reason, the sun comes out, the disease is gone away,” he said.

Reports from around west county, and particularly the coast, make clear that visitors from far and wide have disregarded instructions to stay put in order to avail themselves of the vistas and ambiance of the North Coast.

So people like Jeffrey Q. Smith are preparing to keep those destinations from being overrun.

Smith, 75, a retired wildlife biologist living in Santa Rosa, is a volunteer docent for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the venerable nonprofit that looks out for the parks and beaches of western Sonoma County. On Friday, Smith was preparing for his first shift in months at recently reopened Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville.

“I’m not sure how it’s going to go, but I’m both anxious, apprehensive and excited at the same time,” he said.

He welcomed the chance to be back among people in a treasured spot, covered in cool, towering redwood forest. But he also admitted to being “one of the more risk-averse people around,” and wary of exposure to the coronavirus.

Most people are reasonable, he said, but there have been reports of park visitors proclaiming constitutional rights as they refused to put on masks or maintain social distance, and that’s not an encounter he welcomes.

Chasing crowds away

On the coast, California State Parks personnel have had to go to extraordinary lengths to turn people away from closed beaches and parks. They chased away thousands of would-be visitors over the seven weeks that the county imposed an all-out prohibition on coastal access — an order given only after crowds descended on beaches and parks during a hot March weekend days after the initial stay-at-home rule went into place.

Now, with beaches open only to those who live nearby — and only for a few hours a day — officials have been forced to place about 100 6-foot-long cement blocks across parking lots and turnouts to prevent scofflaws from illegally parking in the area. The signs and rubber cones that had been used proved nearly useless as deterrents. Some were stolen. Others were thrown into the bushes or over the cliffs, said Damien Jones, Sonoma Coast State Park supervising ranger.

With so many visitors expected this weekend, “we don’t have the time to retrieve these cones and therefore needed a more secure vehicle barrier,” state park personnel said in a Facebook post.

Business owners acknowledge the increasing flow of visitors from outside the area and the tension that can arise as a result of their presence.

“We see our locals a lot, but we’re seeing more and more faces that I’ve never seen before,” said Michael Volpatt, owner of Big Bottom Market, which reopened for curbside service on Guerneville’s Main Street a little over a week ago. “I have a feeling that more and more people are migrating up from the city and into the country.”

Gaylord Schaap, general manager at Northwood Golf Club in Monte Rio, said last week he was sure the thickening traffic past his window on Highway 116 was fueled by tourists.

“People, I think, are just getting a little — they’ve gotta get out. It’s kind of human nature,” he said.

The golf club was allowing people to play only nine holes over the holiday weekend, so more players could get in a round. But because the reservation process required submitting a ZIP code, it enabled Schaap to screen for anyone from outside the county, he said.

Lynette McLean, who owns Highlands Resort in Guerneville with her husband, Ken, gets calls from people who want to come stay, apparently unaware of or willing to defy the closure order that remains in place.

“It’s like magical thinking: ‘I know I’m supposed to be sheltering in place, but maybe I could do that at the river,’” McLean said. “So every day, we’re getting calls from people wanting to know if we’re open.”

Economy and exposure

Russian River Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karin Moss said she and other business leaders know they need tourists to keep the economy alive, but not at the cost of exposing residents or of creating “this groundswell of agitated locals to feel like they’re misrepresented or they’re not safe.”

So they’re working to promote creativity and caution as each business sector reopens.

Volpatt ordered circular markers to place along Main Street so he and his neighboring business owners could ensure customers waiting for takeout fare maintained proper distance from one another.

At Johnson’s Beach, a private resort in central Guerneville, co-owner Dan Poirier, has been working out a system through which visitors would reserve areas of beach for the day — once he and his husband are authorized to reopen.

Crista Luedtke, owner of boon eat & drink, boon hotel & spa, Brot restaurant and El Barrio bar, all in Guerneville, was harvesting vegetables from a street-corner garden this past week with plans to use the green space for table service under the new county health order issued Friday allowing outdoor dining.

She and Volpatt also have drawn up “rules of engagement” for visitors to the lower river and coast for distribution by the chamber of commerce and its members. It acknowledges apprehension among some community members “about the inevitable migration of visitors from all over the Bay Area and beyond” as summer progresses.

The guidelines urge visitors to take responsibility for themselves as well as the health of those around them, and to stay home if they are sick; directs them to learn what public spaces are off-limits; and instructs them to follow the pandemic precautions and safeguards now so well-known to most Americans.

“Tourism isn’t dangerous,” said Luedtke. “Being irresponsible is dangerous. We need tourism. It’s the lifeblood of this county, to be frank, and in particular this little river town.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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