“It’s weird,” Mammoth resident Corinne Brown told the Sheet, “when you have to leave Mammoth to go to Yosemite to get away from the crowds.”
Brown and friend Sue Jamieson were relaxing, sitting off the tailgate of their car in the Coldwater parking lot on Sunday afternoon, enjoying a beer after a twelve mile hike. The parking lot was still relatively full at 2:45 p.m., even with storm clouds threatening overhead. According to Jamieson, the parking lot was so full the day before that people had to park at Lake Mary and walk up through Coldwater Campground to reach the trailheads.
Over at Horseshoe Lake, cars were pulled up onto the sides of the road and groups of people clustered together along the lakeshore; kids ran in and out of the water while adults battled the wind on paddleboards. Tourists lined the railing at the Twin Falls overlook, taking pictures and mingling with one another while a father and daughter, wearing masks, stood twenty feet away, casting uneasy glances at the large group in the middle of the overlook.
The vast majority of the folks enjoying the Lakes Basin on Sunday were not wearing or carrying masks.
Concerns about overcrowding in the area have increased as Mono County, and Mammoth Lakes in particular, has seen a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks. Many outdoor seating areas were full throughout the week and trailhead parking was scarce.
Yosemite, which is limiting daily visitors during the pandemic, has reported Covid-19 contamination in the park’s wastewater and while the park had not seen any cases, the evidence would indicate that more than 150 people may have been infected in the park since the beginning of July.
Mono County’s Covid-19 numbers have jumped in the past 3 weeks, with 61 new positive test results reported since July 2. The County now sits at 101 positive cases, 96 of which can be traced back to Mammot Lakes.
At Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, County Administrative Officer Bob Lawton told the board,
“There’s a real chance that if left unchecked, this latest spike might necessitate a broad-based ratcheting back of activities.”
Public Health Officer Tom Boo described the spike as “a very alarming situation,” adding “We’ve crossed the thresholds identified in my attestation (for reopening) and state monitoring.”
Counties are put on the state monitoring list if they exceed an 8% positivity rate over a seven-day period. Mono County exceeded 11% over the past weekend.
Although county officials anticipated a second wave of Covid-19 hitting the region, “what we don’t know is what’s in our immediate future,” said Mammoth Fire Chief and EOC (Emergency Operations Center) representative Frank Frievalt. Part of what’s making the future unknown is the lack of rapid response tests and slow return times, up to a week, for normal tests.
As one local restaurant owner joked this week, “By the time someone is identified as positive, their quarantine period is half over.”
In conjunction with Mammoth officials, the county has released new orders that specifically target Mammoth Lakes restaurants in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 30% of a restaurant’s employees have to be tested, free of charge, within a week and all employees will be required to wear surgical or N-95 masks at all times. These face coverings provide additional protection to the user.
In addition, employees are recommended to wear eye protection and an impermeable apron (rubber or similar) and will be screened at work as opposed to self-screening at home. The county requires a new attestation from restaurants by July 28.
Failure to produce said attestation will result in the offending restaurant’s closure until it is able to complete the attestation process.
Initial code violations will result in a 72-hour closure, a second violation will result in a five day closure, and additional violations will close restaurants for at least seven days. All the while, traditional punishments (fines, reporting to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, etc.) apply on top of the closures.
Why the tough love for restaurants?
Frievalt explained that there is a noticeable correlation between positive Covid-19 cases and restaurants; county officials reported 65% of recent cases in Mammoth Lakes are related to restaurants.
He added that high turnover at restaurants, coupled with the need to take masks off to eat, creates an increased potential for spread. “Our visitors are the vector [of transmission],” he explained.
All that is to say that Mono County will be placed on the state’s monitoring list by the end of the week; if the situation doesn’t change within three days of being placed on the list, a new round of closures goes into effect.
Which means Sunday, July 26 could be doomsday.
Those closures, with some modifications, include dine-in restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, bowling alleys, zoos/museums, cardrooms, gyms, nail salons, places of worship, and tattoo parlors. Additionally, schools cannot reopen while their respective counties remain on the list.
Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz hit back at Frievalt labeling visitors as vectors, telling him that “blaming … causes people on social media to be mean to each other. I would caution us again to watch our language.”
“We’re also a community that has to travel to get things, Kreitz said. “To a lot of degree, we could be vectors ourselves by going out to get our car serviced or whatever.”
She added that “Most of the 84 [now 101] people testing positive are locals …we want to focus on people being safe and healthy and not [described as] these ‘vectors’.”
Frievalt admitted that designating visitors as “vectors” wasn’t the best way of stating the issue but reiterated the fact high turnover rate, a measure of success for restaurants, can’t be ignored.
“I stand by fact that it’s the increased economic activity that our visitation provides thats making it tough for us to keep it contained.”
Both Kreitz and Supervisor Fred Stump were frustrated by the lack of accurate information coming from the county and EOC. Kreitz asked for context for the numbers on the county’s Covid website, asking, “Are we trying to use fear to get people to do what we want? I don’t believe in that but it seems as though that’s where we’re trying to go.”
Board Chair Stacy Corless noted that “visitation is high … and the capacity to manage that visitation is low and that’s really something we need to address as directly as possible.” She and Stump suggested trying to lower weekend visitation and sending out “we’re full” messaging through online platforms.
During public comment, Michelle Layne, owner and operator at Tom’s Place, told the Supervisors that her business currently operates at a 25% daily loss and added “We’re not overwhelmed in business capacity but it looks like it because we had no one here to begin with.”
One caller, who explained that he worked at a local marina, responded to the discussion around labeling visitors as vectors by noting that, while sanitizing rental equipment, visitors will tell him that there’s no need to do so, that they’re not worried, and the virus is a hoax.
“People traveling here are making a conscious decision to put themselves at risk and other people at risk,” he said.
Back at Coldwater, Brown and Jamison reported the crowds had thinned about three miles up the trail and that they encountered only one another person, another local, upon arriving at the end of the trail. “We make a point to go places people aren’t,” Jamieson explained.
After a thoughtful sip, she added with a laugh, “John Urdi is doing too good of a job.”