The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has made any sort of planning and forward thinking difficult. While the state has been walking back restrictions on its reopening plans, the changes and directives can be confusing or contradictory. But for those who are hoping to see some more regulated visitation to the area, this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday prominently featured some good news
Acting Mono County Administrative Officer (CAO) Bob Lawton informed the Supervisors of a recent decision made by Inyo County to interpret the Governor’s ban on lodging and short-term rentals in a new light.
Lawton revealed that officials in Inyo County “specifically and directly noted that [their] interpretation of the governor’s orders did not include their applicability to RV parks or campgrounds.” He noted that Mono County had reached out to the state Department of Health inquiring about the state’s agreement with such an interpretation.
Lawton recommended that Mono pursue a similar interpretation and enforcement strategy to Inyo’s policy; the county can only allow/ask that private RV parks and campgrounds open as federal and public campgrounds are not under the county’s jurisdiction.
The logic behind and argument for Inyo County’s interpretation of the order, Lawton said, is based on the fact that a customer is not renting a physical structure or space with a roof. In addition, campsites are seen to be acceptable for socially distancing groups from one another in ways that a physical structure could not.
The interpretation aims to address a number of issues that county officials and residents have taken up, issues that were on full display over the Memorial Day weekend.
Dispersed and RV camping in unregulated or unsanctioned areas has been an issue since the weather turned warmer. Local authorities have received multiple reports of campfires in high risk areas and illegal dumping of septic systems. Opening private campgrounds would allow for more structured camping with fire safety measures and proper disposal of waste.
In order to combat illegal or unsanctioned camping activities, Lawton announced a portal on the county’s COVID-19 website that would allow for anonymous reporting of violations and follow-up “educational visits” if necessary.
As has been repeated frequently at Supervisors meetings, the county has no jurisdiction over federal or state campgrounds in areas like the Inyo National Forest or Bureau of Land Management lands.
Following a question from Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz, Lawton added that, staffing and prep needs not withstanding, the county campground at Lundy Lake could be opened in conjunction with private campgrounds.
Supervisor Fred Stump, approving of the new interpretation, said, “This is a proactive move to monitor those coming here, give them an environment and baseline information.
“If some businesses make some money and manage to stay in business,” he added, “that’s not such a bad thing.”
Stump also remarked that the Mendocino National Forest had opened all of its campsites on May 15 and had not seen any sort of spike in COVID-19 cases in the region.
Asked by Supervisor Bob Gardner to further explain the distinction between hotels and private campgrounds, Lawton explained the rationale as, “You’re bringing your room with you and you’re taking it away when you’re done.”
One caller, Amanda Mascia from San Diego, told the Supervisors during a public comment section that, “People (in Southern California) aren’t following the rules, people are kind of crappy at it … if you open it up to all of us to come up there, please make sure you’re going to have enough reinforcement.” Mascia said that there had been a 400% increase in RV rentals in the San Diego area, many of which had been made by inexperienced campers.
There are between 1,300-1,400 campsites in Mono County, 75% of which are under federal jurisdiction. That means about 325-350 campsites would open under the new interpretation.
Matt McClain, Executive Director of Mammoth Lakes Recreation, expressed concern that the region would not be able handle the inevitable overflow resulting from opening such a small number of campsites.
“Southern Californians have very selective hearing; they won’t distinguish between public and private campgrounds,” McClain said.
Other local lodging operators and business owners advocated for fully opening lodging within the county. In the state’s reopening plan, these businesses would have to wait until the state as a whole moved into Stage 3.
Supervisor Peters expressed a belief that plans for full lodging reopening could be completed and implemented by June 1, noting “It either gets consensus from the board or it doesn’t.”
“[Mono County] is crawling, it is going to not get up and walk again. We need it to run again,” Peters said.
Circular arguments with no discernible progress has been a consistent issue for the Supervisors in navigating reopening business in the county. Supervisor Kreitz again expressed her frustration with how things have proceeded at a county and state level, with Stump responding to queries about pushing decisions to the following week by saying, “I don’t want to do this again because all we’re doing is frustrating the public.”
Board Chair Stacy Corless reiterated her stance that she would not endorse actions that defy state law.
County Counsel Stacey Simon told the Supervisors that, “I do not read the state’s orders as allowing camping in this phase.”
“ I don’t make decisions, I simply advise as to the law”, Simon said.
The county planned on opening private campgrounds and RV parks on May 29, barring state intervention.