In an extraordinary appeal, leaders from Astoria to Cannon Beach told tourists to stay away from the North Coast to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and invoked emergency powers to ban visitors from campgrounds, hotels and other lodging.
Gov. Kate Brown’s message on Friday night for people in Oregon to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” as a precaution against the virus fell short of an order. After a surge of visitors from the Portland metro area, Washington state and other places to the coast on a sunny Saturday, local governments quickly called special meetings to stitch together a response.
The North Coast’s economy increasingly depends on tourism dollars, so the pushback against visitors, on the first weekend of spring, was uncomfortable. The government’s restrictions on large gatherings, restaurants and bars have already caused hundreds of layoffs during a time when business usually improves during spring break.
“We want to be on the front lines of the recovery when it comes. We want to be welcoming and open arms and have the capacity. But, right now, we’re in danger of creating more than an economic hardship. We’re in danger of creating a social hardship, and we just don’t want to see that happen,” said David Reid, the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.
“So we’re asking everybody to be smart about this and take some additional lumps right now, so we don’t have to take bigger ones later.”
Locals take action
At a special meeting Saturday night, the Warrenton City Commission voted to ban recreational camping, homestay lodging and hotel stays in city limits through at least April to discourage visitors.
The order covers several major commercial campgrounds on Clatsop Spit, including KOA Resorts, Kampers West and Hammond Marina RV Park, except for employees and camp hosts. Anyone who was not on a long-term stay as of March 11 was directed to move out by Sunday evening.
“Postpone your plans, but don’t come here now,” Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer said. “While this thing is going on, transmission is worse when we introduce … folks that are not from here that we don’t know their health status. They don’t know their exposure.”
Filling all the campgrounds can double Warrenton’s population and potentially overwhelm local services if there is an outbreak of the virus, Balensifer said. He echoed pleas from other elected officials and business leaders around the region to postpone unnecessary travel.
“People need to realize that means don’t go to another town to recreate,” Balensifer said. “Stay in your town. Stay where you’re at … Don’t get out there and bring your germs over here.”
Following Warrenton’s decision, Astoria, Clatsop County, Seaside, Cannon Beach and Gearhart held special meetings on Sunday to clamp down on hotels and other lodging.
In Astoria, the order will apply for as long as an emergency declared by the city last week is in place. Long-term guests and essential workers are exempt. The city gave visitors until the end of the day on Monday to leave hotels, homestay lodging and other short-term rentals.
The order has exceptions for critical workers, such as doctors, nurses and patients getting treatment at the cancer center.
City councilors praised the sacrifice of residents, many of whom have been laid off during the closure of most gathering spots to comply with Brown’s calls for social distancing. But they worried about tourists still coming to the coast.
“We cannot let those sacrifices be in vain by allowing thousands of visitors passing through our city, and many stopping in our city or vacationing in our city, during this time,” Mayor Bruce Jones said Sunday before the vote.
Jones issued a message on the city’s website on Saturday pleading with tourists to stay away, saying he was “appalled by the sight of tens of thousands of irresponsible vacationers flocking to the coast, as if this was just another spring break week, with callous disregard for residents’ health and safety.”
In a text message to The Astorian on Saturday, the mayor wrote: “My message to vacationers is, ‘Thank you for loving Astoria, but love us from afar until further notice.’ Stay away.”
The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners voted at a special meeting via teleconference on Sunday afternoon to close campgrounds, hotels, short-term rentals and homestay lodging for two weeks starting at noon on Monday.
The county’s order contains exceptions for camp hosts, people working in the county, as well as people traveling for work or already registered for longer stays.
Along with the lodging ban, some commissioners wondered if the county could do anything to restrict beach access after fielding numerous concerns from residents. The county has no authority over beaches, County Manager Don Bohn said. For now, officials will reinforce the message from Brown’s office that people should stay home.
Commissioner Mark Kujala and other commissioners said they hope Brown takes coastal concerns seriously. “It should be the state issuing an order to stay home, and that should be in place now,” Kujala said.
Commissioner Sarah Nebeker agreed, but added, “Truly though, we have to realize this is all happening from the ground up across the nation. This is not unique to us.”
Seaside, which declared an emergency on Saturday night, also agreed on Sunday to restrict access to city parks, streams and beach areas and close hotels and other lodging on Monday. Gearhart endorsed the county’s order.
Cannon Beach went a step further, closing hotels on Monday and also excluding daytrip visitors through early April.
State closes parks
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department announced on Sunday afternoon that state parks will close at the end of the day on Monday. The state had previously indicated that parks would close on April 3.
“We would have preferred an orderly shutdown of the system and to remain open for daytime visits, but our concern for the effects on rural health care systems requires us to move up and expand our plans,” Lisa Sumption, the director of the state Parks and Recreation Department, said in a statement. “We know this will cause a disruption, since we’re suspending service to everyone, even people who live near a park.
“Reducing contact between people is more important than recreation at the moment.”
In Washington, the state closed campgrounds through April, although day-use areas and trails are open.
Jones said he and other public officials from the coast shared their concerns about tourist travel with Brown’s office and had hoped the governor would take firmer action. In the absence of more direction from the state, he said, “local jurisdictions are taking action to protect the health and safety of our residents.”
The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems and others had been pressing Brown to order people to stay home, like in California, New York and other states.
Several leaders on the coast faulted Brown for not issuing the order on Friday night, before the crush of weekend travel to popular trails and beaches.
“On Friday, we anticipated a strong message from the governor’s office,” Rick Hudson, Cannon Beach’s emergency manager, said during a special meeting of the City Council on Sunday. “But that strong message that we were anticipating so that we could take action and actually have some enforceable items never happened. It was not an order, but only a plan.
“The plan was to stay home and stay safe. And there was also accompanying messages with that to go outside and enjoy nature along with social distancing.”
Hotels, which typically see a boost in business during the spring, were already coping with the downturn tied to the government’s restrictions over the virus.
The Commodore Hotel in downtown Astoria, recently leased by global hotel group Selina, had planned to close on Monday before the city’s order.
The Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa announced a temporary closure on Monday. “This is an important step to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the hotel said in a statement. “COVID-19 has created an unimaginable situation. We hope you are safe and practicing the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommended steps to stay that way.”
Ganesh Sonpatki, who leases and operates the Astoria Riverwalk Inn for the Port of Astoria, said the government’s restrictions will hurt economically, but that he understands why they are necessary.
“We’ll accept any decision that’s passed on for the safety of our community,” he said.
The Riverwalk Inn was already down to a fraction of its rooms rented at a time when the hotel would usually be booked for spring break. Sonpatki said he’ll keep a skeleton crew for safety.
On the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington state, the owners of 21 hotels and lodging properties voluntarily announced a temporary closure to visitors. Soon after, the Chinook Observer reported, Pacific County Health Officer Dr. Steven Krager ordered the closure of all beach approaches and lodging businesses.
“Our visitors are very important to us but this is not the right time to be encouraging people to travel outside their own homes nor to invite them into our community,” Andi Day, the executive director of the Pacific County Tourism Bureau, said in a statement. “If we can all act responsibly right now, this will be behind us in time to enjoy weeks at the beach in the near future.”
‘Parking lots are full’
On social media, reports emerged early on Saturday of heavy traffic from the Portland metro area and other places toward the coast.
Michael Manzulli, an attorney who lives in Tolovana Park, wrote to local state park managers asking them to close Oswald West State Park, Arcadia Beach and Hug Point.
“Both parking lots are full and people are parking along the highway shoulders in either direction,” he wrote about Oswald West. “There are only two small bathroom facilities to accommodate the hundreds of people recreating here this spring break. Advised social distancing is certainly not happening.”
Traffic was thick on U.S. Highway 26, he said, and both Hug Point and Arcadia Beach were also busy.
“This is not spring break as usual, yet folks from Seattle and Oregon’s Willamette Valley are acting like it is,” he wrote. “They are exhausting our limited grocery resources and possibly spreading COVID-19 to our area from more densely populated and infected areas.”
Some residents and businesses also pushed back against tourists.
In Astoria, Geno’s Pizza and Burgers announced on Facebook on Saturday afternoon that it would limit deliveries.
“Due to the fact that so many people are coming to the coast, we will not deliver to any motels in Astoria,” the business wrote. “We will deliver as usual to our customers for now. I must protect my employees from all these travelers.”
While the number of visitors unsettled many locals, tourism did not appear to match a typical spring. Restaurants and bars are providing takeout only, and many businesses have closed entirely over concerns about the virus.
Over the weekend, several more businesses decided to temporarily close to help promote safety.
Seaside Brewing Co. and Funland Arcade were among the ones in Seaside to close. Lucy’s Books in Astoria closed and Fort George Brewery temporarily ended to-go orders.
In an audio recording posted on Saturday, state Sen. Betsy Johnson said she was overwhelmed by calls from her constituents on the coast.
“The gist of the calls are all the same. And to me they’re very poignant calls and emails. What they say is, ‘We as responsible Oregonians heeded the warning to shut down at great personal and financial detriment to ourselves,’” the Scappoose Democrat said. “The sad part is that after Oregonians took these very painful steps, they have been inundated with visitors, largely from Washington, to a lesser degree California, and a goodly number of them from Portland.”
Sarah McAllister, a photographer and creative stylist who lives in Cannon Beach, said she was unnerved by the visitors she saw on Saturday.
“Our area relies almost entirely on tourism as a whole, but this is the time we need it the very least,” she said in an email to state park managers. “I am begging and pleading with you just how important it is that we do not have tourists in our tiny rural areas right now. We don’t even have the hospital capacity to care for our locals with the COVID-19 pandemic happening.
“This is a public outcry to please not visit tiny rural coastal towns. We have a ton of recently unemployed service and hospitality workers in our area (myself included) and the last thing we need is more tourists bringing COVID-19 here faster than it will already emerge.”
‘Tide’s kind of turned’
In Seaside, the cool and cloudy weather on Sunday appeared to discourage tourists from visiting.
“Today the tide’s kind of turned,” Shannon Carey, of Dundee’s Donuts, said. “The warning is getting out to people, and there seemed to be a lot of backlash yesterday: ‘Why are they coming here and why aren’t people paying attention?’”
Tsunami Sandwich Co. owner David Posalski sat in his Broadway store, preparing to shut down.
Like other downtown businesses, he had experienced a bit of a surge from visitors on Saturday. “There are a lot of people who don’t realize if they stay home, they’re not going to catch anything,” Posalski said.
“I think a couple of weeks where everyone has a whole lot less interaction may change the curve.”
What will happen to his employees? “They are all without work,” Posalski said.
As for himself? “We’ll continue to pay our bills until we can’t. We’re coming out of the winter, so it’s really the worst time of year for a lot of the businesses here in our town.”