You know the part in the silent movies where the damsel in distress is tied to the tracks and the train is bearing down.
Well, given current stay-at-home orders and loss of business in Mammoth Lakes, that scenario appears to be playing out in real time.
Except there’s not just one person tied to the tracks. There are scores.
And they are anything but silent.
At the Mammoth Lakes Town Council meeting Wednesday evening, several local business owners implored Council to find a way to help them get back open – even if it means defying state health orders.
Because those health orders have proven a spectacular failure: no one is staying home.
And the spectacular failure has bred further failure in that rogue operators benefit by renting their places out while local hotels and motels abiding by the rules die on the vine.
Meanwhile, elected Mammoth Councilmembers beg unelected staff for direction. But that is not the unelecteds purview. They can provide counsel and information; they can’t provide leadership.
Because leadership requires risk. And whatever path is chosen, there is risk of death, both to individuals and to livelihoods.
With that as a backdrop …
The unelecteds, Mammoth Lakes Town Manager Dan Holler, Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt, Director of Mono County’s Unified Command Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Covid response team, and Mono County Public Health Officer Tom Boo led off the meeting with the latest, grim health news.
As Boo said, the test positivity rate for Mono County remains persistently high, downplaying the reduced rate over the past week to reduced testing over the holidays.
The County’s case rate is still 60-90/100,000.
He mentioned that this rate would have to drop to approximately 28/100,000 for schools to reopen.
Holler said that overall cases have soared 85% over the past month and that the stay-at-home order initiated on December 7 remains in effect with no hard end date.
ICU capacity in the Southern California region remains at zero. 554 people died from Covid-19 in the state of California on Wednesday, approaching the record total of 574 which occurred on New Year’s Eve.
Inyo County has recorded 27 deaths, seven within the past week.
According to Frievalt, Inyo County also requested four oxygen concentrators be shipped down this week.
Then the meeting moved into the discussion/public comment phase. While Holler stated that the town is trying to walk the fine line between public health and local business health, he said “we’re not able to move on the restaurant association’s opening request.” (For related story see p. 6)
This, perhaps, represented one too many ‘no’s’ for Stacy Schaubmayer, General Manager of the Alpenhof, to bear.
“I can’t make a left turn out of my parking lot [because it’s so busy] and yet, my doors are closed,” she began, adding that her employees and family are suffering. “We need some level of occupancy, even if it’s 10 or 20%.”
John Morris, Chairman of the Lodging Association, added, “I’m not an alarmist, but I’m starting to ring the bell. A lot.”
“This community is getting torn apart,” he observed. “We’re pitting neighbor against neighbor … this order is not working.”
The order, he observed, is pushing visitors into illegal rentals which are likely not held to the same standard as managed properties.
“Enforce the rules at a reasonable rate,” he said.
Morris suggested that the Town will be losing workforce in short order if some occupancy is not permitted. And the boomerang effect (of a looming labor shortage) would create a “mess” when the Town is inundated with visitation in the spring.
Heather Schaubmayer chimed in, saying, “I back John 1,000 percent. I have 80 employees looking at me saying when am I going to have a job again.”
“I’ve reduced staff 70%” said Mammoth Brewing’s Sean Turner, who said he just wants to work and be open. “I don’t want to ask for assistance,” he said.
George Tschiporikov elaborated upon Morris’s observation regarding illegal rentals. The irony, said Tschiporikov, is that you’re forcing families together into tiny units (cramming mixed parties of ten into places meant for four) because you’re constricting supply.
“We voted you in, not the state. Please listen to your voters,” he told Council.
Robert Schaubmayer flatly said he was tired of the letters, the meetings and the delays. “Get off Zoom and take a look around at what’s going on,” he said. “It’s not going well. There has to be a change.”
In its deliberations, Council agreed with the above assessment. There needs to be a change. Alas, empathy is not policy. And no Council directive was forthcoming.
Mayor Bill Sauser acknowledged it was
“pretty obvious” the 43% occupancy ask on the part of the Lodging Association would not fly. “But we’ve got to do something,” he said. “The black market is rampant … we need to find a way to open in some small way to hopefully coax that black market into the light.”
He offered no insight as to what that small way might be.
He did observe, “What’s the point in protecting the community if there will be no community left when it’s all over?”
Mayor Pro-Tem Lynda Salcido said the ideal would be to find a way to serve two masters (health & business) at once. Again, no insight as to what serving two masters might look like.
“There’s a lot of work and comversation going on behind-the-scenes,” said Councilman John Wentworth. “We hear you.”
As a gesture of solidarity, Wentworth said he would forego his Council salary over the next six months and donate it to community causes.
Apparently, however, a lot of the work going on behind-the-scenes amounts to extensive wordsmithing, because a promised letter (in part asking for reassignment from the Southern California section) meant to go out to the state after the December 23 Town/County joint meeting was never sent.
“The letter has been written and will be going out shortly,” insisted Mayor Sauser. “It’s been getting worked on.”
*Editor’s observation: At that rate of efficiency, The Sheet would publish twice a year.
New Councilmember Sarah Rea apologized to the public for the letter still sitting on the tarmac. “I’m angry the letter didn’t go out to the state. I’m embarrassed by that.”
*This wasn’t Rea’s only mea culpa of the evening. For more, see adjacent story
Once a proper amount of Council hand-wringing had been performed, it was time for Council to punt the ball back to the unelecteds.
Town Attorney Andrew Morris said the state has been very heavy-handed in its enforcement of orders in recalcitrant communities. “Publicly, if you say you’ll accept some lodging, you’re saying you’re going rogue,” he continued, adding, “Those cities taking a more lax approach to enforcement are certainly not going out of their way to tell the state about it.”
As for Frievalt and Boo, when pressed, they did not succumb to public sentiment.
“My role, my skill set, is in the management of emergencies,” said Frievalt. “I’m gravely concerned about the position we’re heading into … I’m concerned that we’re going to keep running into situations we can’t imagine. It would be disingenuous and going against my character to minimize public health impacts, no matter how inconvenient they may be.”
As for Boo, he saw no good options. “Legally and ethically I can’t support disobeying state public health orders,” he said.
“I don’t have a magic bullet tonight,” offered Holler, who promised to get the aforementioned letter out to the state by end of business Thursday.
Wentworth insisted that Council hold another special meeting next week to continue dialogue.
“I’m confident there’s a medium ground [to be found] without defying the state – directly,” he said.