With COVID-19 aka coronavirus causing major shutdowns in cities across the globe, it was only a matter of time before the Eastern Sierra saw large-scale shutdowns of its own. Life has slowly ground to a halt for the imminent future.
Mammoth Unified School District Superintendent Jennifer Wildman made the decision to cancel school for at least two weeks on Friday, March 13. From there, other events in the area were cancelled or postponed including all shows at The Edison Theatre in Mammoth as well as Playhouse 395’s production of Little Shop of Horror.
As of Thursday, March 19, there are no positive cases in Mono County. Thursday evening, Public Health Officer Tom Boo issued a proclamation closing all hotels, motels, and short-term rentals in Mammoth Lakes.
Minutes later, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state to shelter in place.
Don’t leave your house unless you’re picking up a Sheet!
The promise of a near-week-long snow storm meant tourists came to the area in droves, desperate to escape lockdown in their own towns. By Friday, parking lots were full and grocery store checkouts were packed; snow fell near constantly. The combination of snow and coronavirus fears meant that many like-minded individuals were in town for a good time, social distancing be damned.
By the time afternoon on Saturday, March 14th, rolled around, Mammoth Mountain had closed early due to dangerously high wind speed. Not a huge problem, just wait until tomorrow. Then the hammer dropped so to speak: Mammoth and June Mountain would be closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus. Just as soon as they’d come to town, they packed up and left.
Mammoth’s closing leaves quite a few residents out in the cold. Employees reporting to work on Sunday received notice that they should take their uniforms and gear home for the foreseeable future. The mountain set Friday, March 20, as a de facto layoff date for all of their seasonal employees (the exact number isn’t known at this time); they were given a final paycheck and asked to move out of employee housing.
Mono County pushed out notice on Sunday that they would be declaring a public health emergency in anticipation of COVID-19 cases, the purpose of the declaration being to “enhance the County’s abilities to prepare and respond to cases when they are identified.” Although Mono County has yet to confirm a case, the declaration came as the virus had infected more 3,700 people in the United States.
The declaration came in tandem with Governor Gavin Newsom’s own declaration of actions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Some of Newsom’s measures included home isolation for those 65 and older, closing bars, nightclubs, and wineries, sheltering the homeless, and limiting visits to nursing and care facilities.
Mammoth Lakes Mayor Bill Sauser and District 5 Supervisor Stacy Corless released a joint statement that began, “Coronavirus is impacting our community” and continued, noting, “As of March 15th, there are no confirmed cases in the county and town. We are prepared for this to change, as one of the few certainties with COVID-19 is rapid change.”
Corless and Sauser reminded readers that Mono County, as a branch of state government, would be following the state’s lead, as would the local public health department.
“This is scary. The response that is happening probably doesn’t feel like enough. We are a frontier county,” Corless and Sauser wrote. “That means that sometimes, we don’t have access to all the outside resources we want or need, when we want them.”
The pair concluded by asking residents to continue to social distancing and proper hygiene to mitigate the virus’s spread while reminding residents that “we are in this together. What we do here extends beyond the Eastern Sierra to those who love and care about this special place.”
The County has launched a website https://coronavirus.monocounty.ca.gov/ that features daily updates and a day-to-day tracker of COVID-19 testing in the county. As of Thursday,
Mono County Libraries followed the schools’ lead and announced closures through the end of March.
On Monday, the majority of local restaurants opted to close their doors to dine-in patrons, instead offering take-out or delivery options; bars that had previously advertised St. Patrick’s Day celebrations notified patrons through social media of their plans to cancel events. A few, such as the Warming Hut and Liberty Bar remained open, with limited seating. Liberty announced Tuesday afternoon that they would be closing for the next few days while Warming Hut announced on Wednesday that they would be switching to take-out only.
Mammoth Lakes Tourism held an impromptu meeting Monday to discuss strategy moving forward (See story pageXXX) with Director John Urdi presenting predictions that TBID losses for non-profit could amount to nearly $1 million. Urdi predicted that business in some sectors could be down nearly 80% for over a month.
The Board of Supervisors held it’s weekly meeting on Tuesday morning, with Supervisors Stump and Gardner, along with Finance Director Janet Dutcher, participating remotely. The keynote component of the meeting consisted of a comprehensive update on coronavirus happenings from all county departments.
Public Health officer Dr. Tom Boo told the Supervisors that Public Health is currently in the process of investigating a suspicious case and/or an potential outbreak in Mammoth Lakes in addition to another case elsewhere that may have been contracted in the town at some point recently.
Boo reiterated the expected impacts to the population as well as the local economy, noting that efforts are being made on all levels to mitigate those impacts. He specifically referenced the state mandate prohibiting evictions and foreclosures as well as extended deadlines on utility bills.
“We’ll do whatever it takes and we’ll ask the public to cooperate,” Boo told the Supervisors. “Risk of infection is real and imminent.”
He explained that the county’s present testing capacities were limited and that by the time tests were to come back, patients very could have recovered. He urged those with mild symptoms to self-quarantine to allow for focused testing and care for those with severe cases of the virus.
Under the declaration of a public emergency, Boo’s powers are greatly expanded and he has the ability to initiate much more stringent measures than normal to ensure public safety.
“Its clear to me: the earlier any measures are put in place, the greater the effect will be in the long run,” Boo said. “I do believe we should consider additional measures.”
When supervisors asked for the release of information such as the number of tests that had been conducted, Public Health project manager Bryan Wheeler stepped in to state, “That’s a very bad idea.” He cited stoking public fear and potential HIPA violations as reasons against releasing the information.
The supervisors did not agree. The county later added those statistics to their coronavirus portal.
In relation to questions about the county’s available beds and respirators, Boo told the Supervisors that beyond cost and availability of respirators, the staff necessary to support such an increase is not present at the moment.
Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt discussed the Unified Command dedicated to managing the virus. The Unified Command includes Frievalt, Boo, Mammoth Lakes Town Manager Dan Holler and County Administrative Officer Steve Barwick.
Frievalt explained the Command’s five goals, which are as follows:
Enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and agencies.
Establishes common processes for planning and managing resources.
Allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure.
Centralizes all public information functions and provides the mechanism to organize, integrate, and coordinate information to ensure timely, accurate, accessible, and consistent messaging across multiple jurisdictions.
Speed up response to support and accelerate recovery.
Frievalt reminded the supervisors that “it’s a marathon, not a spring. [This is] one of the longest events we’ve had to deal with.”
Supervisor John Peters advocated for increased information for north county communities, noting the limited resources available in the area and a lack of information in the Spanish-speaking population.
CAO Barwick provided a rundown of county services, explaining that a number of departments had largely transitioned online in an attempt to minimize contact with potentially sick individuals. He also noted that there would be temporary redistributions of employees between departments to offset increased/decreased workloads.
Barwick also mentioned potentially delaying taxes submissions, something that Finance Director Dutcher stated that while she didn’t have the power to affect, a group of treasurer/tax controllers was in conversation with the state controller about shifting deadlines. The danger there, Dutcher said, would be dipping into the county reserves to handle payroll for staff and other budgetary concerns.
Social Services Director Kathy Peterson explained that her department, along with behavioral health, was doing as much as possible to stay in contact with vulnerable communities and those needing their services. She expressed a feeling that greater services may be required as seniors who would normally run errands on their own may be hesitant to do so, noting that both Social Services and Behavioral had seen increased requests for services.
Behavioral Health is instituting a “warm line” available from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. for those looking to talk to someone about issues they may be experiencing. They will also be conducting daily interactive sessions on Facebook addressing pandemic and quarantine-related issues.
On Wednesday night in Mammoth, the Town Council met entirely remotely to discuss coronavirus preparations. Town Attorney Andy Morris explained that in light of the declaration of emergency, Town Manager Dan Holler would see an increase in his authorities, something Morris deemed a “longer leash.” In other words, Holler no longer has to seek council approval before taking action.
Morris also noted that agencies don’t have to comply with the Brown act in terms of inviting constituents to a public setting or posting an agenda but that events must still be filmed or recorded.
Holler explained that he was considering limiting or shutting down lodging accommodations and short-term rentals and threw out the idea of housing displaced workers in short-term rental accommodations. John Morris, Director of Operations at Snowcreek and Chair of the Lodging Association, told council that he’d already closed Snowcreek much to his regret and expressed disappointment that the lodging question had not come up at the Board of Supervisors meeting the day prior.
The Council also expressed concern about recently displaced employees, such as those formerly employed by Mammoth Mountain. Councilmember Cleland Hoff explained that she’d heard of instances where the turnaround for employees to vacate was far too limited and Kirk Stapp said that others who held secondary jobs in the community were forced to look elsewhere.
On Thursday morning, China reported zero new domestic cases and declining fatality rates, a signal that strict enforcement and adherence to self-quarantining and social distancing could produce positive outcomes.