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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.

“The campgrounds are not open. They don’t want people coming up and socializing as far as groups of people,” Ceniceros said.

Still, he sees a lot of bustle around him, from hikers and bicyclists.

“There’s a lot of bicyclists going up and down Dry Creek (Road). You can bicycle on the trailheads. Hiking and walking also is great,” he said. “They are not allowing you to do the normal things that you could usually do like go hang out with a bunch of people at the lake.”

The closings are taking an economic toll on the outdoor recreation businesses. Jim Blake of Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds said his religious nonprofit had to apply for a U.S. Small Business Administration emergency loan to keep the business viable since the now-closed canopy tours operation typically gets about 20,000 customers a year. The organization employs about 120 people, but it has furloughed 20 workers since losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from customer cancellations. The conference grounds is open, but it is only housing homeless residents as part of keeping them safe from catching the virus.

“I have a base of about 40 guides anxious to get back to work,” he said. “If we aren’t going to be able to open soon, it’s going to have negative consequences on employment. … If we open the canopy tour, we don’t have to do a second wave of layoffs.”

Blake said he told county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins that he needed to open as soon as possible given a SBA loan requirement to use most of the money for payroll means he needs to reopen soon. “We can’t wait until July 1. We’ve got to be generating money now,” Blake said.

Hopkins said many small businesses in her west county district rely on visitor spending from Memorial Day to Labor Day to get them through the entire year. These include charter boats out of Bodega Bay and the restaurants and hotels who serve such visitors.

“We have a local economy that is reliant on people coming out and enjoying the outdoors,” Hopkins said. But it’s not “crystal clear” when they will be cleared to reopen, she said.

“I have been getting an earful from a number of different folks who really want to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for the community,” she said.

Sonoma County Tourism is preparing how to handle an expected influx of visitors at some point this summer into the area, and to make sure they enjoy their experience but do not put local residents at greater risk of getting infected by COVID-19. Besides continued restaurant and wine tasting room closures, another hindrance for overnight visitors now is that about 20 local hotels went dark, at least temporarily, due to declining revenues.

The tourism agency has developed a traditional and social media campaign to inform travelers and is working with local chambers of commerce to get the word out across the county and country, said Claudia Vecchio, chief executive officer, noting the debut of her organization’s S.A.F.E. Travels Promise marketing. The message is when you visit Sonoma County attractions you pledge to adhere to public health guidelines.

“Certainly there is no question that into June it will definitely be the case that people will be flocking to the outdoor experience,” Vecchio said. “That’s where our focus is - to make sure people are being responsible and conscious travelers.”

The focus on outdoor recreation also should reap long-term benefits for the county, too. It will offer more opportunities to lure businesses and residents attracted by the plethora of recreational opportunities. The industry for the last five years has been a focus for local tourism and economic development officials to help diversify the economy beyond wine, craft beer and food attractions that draw scores of people to the county every year.

A 2018 study by the economic development board found the outdoor recreation sector had a $731 million economic impact with more than 300 companies employing more than 4,300 ?people. And 9 out of 10 visitors to Sonoma County came here for outdoor activities, the report found.

“Our workforce is a really nice workforce,” said Brand of Healdsburg Running Co. He also noted investments in the sector, such as the passage two years ago of Measure M, a one-eighth of 1 cent sales tax for extra money for parks, will help the county compete with other outdoor meccas such as Bend, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.

Brand formerly worked in technology with Yahoo and other companies before relocating to Sonoma County and opening his store in 2014. He also is race director of the Sonoma County 50 Ultramarathon, which was supposed to be held on April 11 but was among many virus casualties so far this year. The 2019 competition brought in about 400 racers from across the country. Brand senses the county is in a prime position to recruit more outdoor enthusiasts to take up residence here. He noted recent action by Facebook, Twitter and Square to allow some of their employees to work remotely on a permanent basis likely will entice other companies to do the same. As a result, some of them could move here.

“I think we are going to get a lot more population, when you can live where you want,” Brand said. “That’s how I ended up here.”

For the time being, however, the focus for tourism and economic development officials has turned to getting existing outdoor recreation businesses up and running again to showcase the area as they usually do during summer seasons.

Burke, the canoe operator, said she could quickly reopen. She is working on protocols to put adequate time in between guests arriving to rent a canoe by using a new customer appointment system. And she’s going to implement new personal safety rules for check-in at the boat ramp and on the bus ride that brings customers back from the finishing spot on the Russian River near Guerneville. The new public health guidelines are being designed to help her workers and thousands of guests expected to still come this summer to enjoy rowing down the river - and remain safe.

“We got a lot of locals calling me, which is really nice,” Burke said. “It’s awesome to see so many people that really want to see the beauty that is in their own front yard.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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