David Rosales was counting down the days until he and his family could hit the slopes, a quick getaway up to Mammoth Mountain to get his two kids away from their computers and the confines of home, and out in nature.
The Huntington Beach surfer had done a few close-to-home trips throughout the pandemic, a road trip up the coastline to Santa Cruz and into Northern California, with a stop in Napa on the way home. For Rosales, and many others stuck at home, quick getaways within the state were what kept him and his family sane.
But the regional stay-at-home order from Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month called for restrictions on travelers, not just out-of-state but also within California – new guidelines that have hotel and vacation-rental operators scrambling to figure out what’s allowed and what’s not for the holidays.
The stay-at-home order, which kicks in when a region’s intensive care capacity falls below 15%, states that “no hotel or lodging entity in California can accept or honor out-of-state reservations for non-essential travel” unless it is for longer than the period required for quarantine and the visitors hole up at the property during that time.
“Additionally, hotels and lodging entities in a county under a regional stay home order cannot accept or honor in-state reservations for non-essential travel.”
There’s a few exceptions, including accommodations for essential workers, homeless populations and other housing solutions.
The California Department of Public Health said the intent is for people to stay home or at least not be traveling outside their region – for the Southern California region that includes from Santa Luis Obispo County down to San Deigo and inland including Mono, Inyo, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“We have reached a point where COVID-19 is so widespread in California that just leaving the house is a risky behavior, which is why we adopted the regional stay-at-home order,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency said in an e-mail. “This is not about which sector is riskier than another sector, it’s about that fact that any mixing among households presents a risk of disease transmission.”
It’s not just overnight accommodations taking a hit. With fewer visitors going to Big Bear, there’s been a trickle down impact on local businesses that depend on tourism.
“The business has decreased significantly. I think we are doing a quarter what we would normally do,” said Aga Babrowska, manager at Leroy’s Ski & Snowboard Shop. “We do stay open, just to keep us going through the winter. But it’s bad.”
Local snow resorts are limiting attendees to allow for social distancing, so rentals are also down because of that, Babrowska said. Those people who would be renting gear usually buy gloves and other accessories.
“And there is no snow. So we can’t even sell sleds for anyone who is visiting for the day,” she said. “With the weather, that’s doubling the negative effect. Now there is no travel, period.”
Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotels have taken a pro-active approach throughout the pandemic and there’s no proof they are contributing to the spread of coronavirus.
“We’re good at this. We’re hosting homeless, COVID positives, cruise ship passengers on quarantines, wildfire evacuates and we’ve had no cluster outbreaks,” Mohrfeld, a former Redondo Beach resident now based in Sacramento, said. “If there’s something a hotel knows how to do, it’s be clean.”
Many hotels have earned the Global Biorisk Advisory Council Star, a rating that gives accreditation to properties that follow guidelines for requiring masks, sanitation and other safety measures, said Kelly Miller, CEO of Visit Huntington Beach and a board member of the California Travel Association, a statewide visitor industry advocacy group.
He also said the order’s guidelines are hard to implement.
“It’s very challenging for businesses to do litmus tests on a guest’s essentialness, or how far they’ve traveled,” he said. “It’s a little all over the place. I don’t think there’s any consistent understanding among the 50 some counties in California.
“If you walk into a hotel, and say ‘I’m essential.’ Is that hotel going to say ‘no’? Each hotel has their different protocols.”
The order also applies to short-term rentals – typically homes or rooms rented for less than 30 days, often offering more affordable stays for the budget conscious or larger space options for bigger groups.
Newport Beach in the early days of the pandemic banned short-term lodging for more than a month. But with the latest stay-at-home order, there’s been no city action to do the same.
“Our approach is to educate short-term rental permit holders on the new restrictions,” city spokesperson John Pope said.
Enforcement varies among different counties, Mohrfeld said.
He’s heard about health departments visiting hotels and short-term rentals in part of the state, though it’s unclear if there’s been fines or warnings.
Although he believes hotels are safe to stay in, Mohrfeld said people should do what the public health order calls for in their region.
“I’m going to follow their lead on this and implement it as best as we can,” he said. “I want to get in front of this. If we can stop the pandemic, we can get back to traveling and our normal lives. So let’s try and do the right thing.”
The benchmark for cancellations is up to each individual property operator, it seems.
Phil Ravenna, interim general manager at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort, called the order “vague and confusing.”
“We had to scramble to understand it so we could comply with the order,” he said.
Notices were sent out to reservation holders saying they could cancel or re-schedule, but people who were considered essential could still stay.
“We can only accept reservations for essential travel,” he said. “We have the guest sign an acknowledgement and we can book and honor it. Most people’s reservations are for leisure, that’s considered non-essential, we have to cancel the reservations and honor them and hopefully convince them to re-book when the order is lifted.”
He said the Newport Dunes has been a place visitors, especially in its RV park, have felt safe throughout the pandemic. But the new restriction, which also applies to camping, has left the area near empty.
“Our advocates are certainly trying to push for more clarification,” he said. “We’re hopeful this isn’t going to last that much longer.”
Regardless, they’ll make it through the tough times, he said.
“Caution and safety do have to be enforced one way or another,” he said. “We will all get through this and prevail.”
Craig Batley, general manager for Burr White Realty in Newport Beach, said cancellations were granted to many reservation holders who felt uncomfortable traveling, but the management group wasn’t going to force people out.
“We’ve canceled a couple hundred, we gave all the money back,” he said. “ A lot of local, Southern California people want to get out of their house … say a family wants to come down from Fullerton – well, why not? All they are doing is coming and staying. They are obeying the laws, warning a mask, they are just in a different dwelling.”
For Rosales, it was the latest of a series of canceled trips. The musician had to cancel his new album tour in Italy and a family trip to Hawaii last spring.
He said he plans on rebooking his trip to the slopes for February – assuming restrictions will be lifted by that time.
“We’re just beat up about booking something and the uncertainly of it all,” he said, noting that he’ll spend more time surfing near home. “At least we live here, it’s a beautiful place to live.”