Sonoma County outdoor recreation businesses limp to start of summer season
If this was a typical year, Burke’s Canoe Trips in Forestville on Saturday would have had another frantic kickoff to a busy summer season. Its workers would have welcomed visitors from across the region and the country to row, paddle or just lollygag on a 10-mile trek along the lower Russian River.
Instead, the longtime west county outdoor recreation fixture was closed for Memorial Day weekend as a result of local public health emergency restrictions originally put in place in mid-March to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. That hasn’t stopped the callers asking when Burke’s will reopen?
“We have been getting a lot of calls. ‘Oh, my gosh. We got to get to the river. Tell us you are opening soon?’?” owner Linda Burke said of a typical caller.
The seasonal business, which employs about ?20 people, has been in her family for more than 60 years. Over that time, it has become a rite of passage for local residents, and repeat visitors, during the summer. Burke’s never has missed a season though there has been a few dry days in mid-June because of high water levels. It closes by the end of September so wildfires have not interfered with the business.
“This year we are just waiting to see what authorities say in the county, in terms of when we are able to open,” Burke said.
Other outdoor recreation operators on the North Coast remain in a similar position as their usually busy summer season begins - only on the calendar for now. The operators note there is pent-up demand to get outside, after most area people have been sheltering at home for nearly 10 weeks. And they think their activities align well with social distancing guidelines. They say the already heavily trafficked reopened local trails and county parks prove their point.
“We are locked and loaded, and ready to go,” said Jim Blake, executive director of Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, which operates Sonoma Canopy Tours in Occidental. “We should be open if the golf courses are open. We are no less safe in our opinion.”
Their lobbying campaign comes as the outdoor recreation industry appears positioned to help boost county tourism efforts since on-site winery and dining at restaurants - food service was allowed to begin over the weekend at outdoor patios - for months will remain limited to safeguard public health as the virus threat remains. And wine festivals and concerts and other large gatherings have been canceled in Sonoma County through Labor Day.
Indeed, there are emerging signs outdoor recreation can be a sector that helps lead the way for a much-needed local economic recovery. For example, Sonoma County Tourism is planning a promotional campaign along those lines that fits with its new branding campaign - “Life Opens Up” - that seeks to lure people beyond the county’s traditional wine tourism visit.
The focus also comes as business development officials are keen to promote the outdoors sector that is nearing $1 billion in annual economic benefit in Sonoma County. The industry is growing beyond big-time brands, such as equipment company CamelBak of Petaluma and clothing manufacturer Marmot of Rohnert Park, to upstarts like Marin Mountain Bikes, which after 15 years in Marin County relocated to Petaluma two years ago.
“What I think is that you will see a lot more growth of companies like that as we outdoor more on bikes, outdoor on the river and outdoor on other places,” said Skip Brand, owner of the Healdsburg Running Co. and a member of the county’s Economic Development Board. “The trends overall will be very positive.”
The first necessity is for the sector to get the blessing from local health officials to resume operations. The economic development board has been working with these businesses to present plans to county health officials for reopening as soon as possible.
Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said last week it’s possible the next update of the county’s request to state health officials for further resumption of economic activities could include more outdoor recreational activities.
“We’re opening one sector or sometimes one activity at a time because we want to see what the impact is,” Mase said. “That’s something I’m sure we’ll be considering over the coming weeks.”
At Lake Sonoma Marina, offshore fishing and boating in small parties are the only activities now allowed, said Larry Ceniceros, marina manager. Two launch ramps are open and visitors can bring stand-up paddle boards and kayaks. Facial coverings and social distancing protocols are required in and around the marina. On Friday, several more trails around Lake Sonoma were opened up for hiking.