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Memorial Day travelers flood Sonoma County amid staffing shortages

This Memorial Day weekend, some Sonoma County businesses say they are getting back to their previous “normal” busy for a summer holiday after pandemic-related restrictions wiped out most of last year’s business.

Others say they have more customers than they know what to do with.

“Five months ago, we were trying to squeeze water out of rocks,” said Hunt Bailie, owner of Sonoma Adventures bike rentals and tours in Sonoma. “Now we’re drinking out of a fire hydrant.”

His outdoor business may have gotten swamped a little ahead of the curve, Bailie said, “but all businesses are feeling it now.”

“If you want to travel to Sonoma County, you really need to make reservations. Plan ahead,” he said. “It started with the vast number of wineries being forced to do reservations only, and many of them are adopting that post-June 15,” when the state is set to end COVID-19 restrictions.

Linda Burke, owner of Burke’s Canoes in Forestville, said some canoes and kayaks are still available for rent, “but anyone wanting to go over the weekend should call sooner rather than later.”

She said with highs of 90 to 95 degrees forecast for Memorial Day weekend, “people are in the mood to be on the water.”

The county parks system’s campground reservations are completely full for the holiday weekend, according to Meda Freeman, marketing manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

The popularity of spending more time outdoors as a result of the pandemic is crescendoing with the advent of widespread COVID-19 vaccinations, playing into the county tourism agency’s current motto, “Life opens up.”

Memorial Day weekend “will be a very busy weekend in Sonoma County and the beginning of what we foresee as a robust summer travel season,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and chief executive officer of Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Tourism. “We’ve seen travel and visitation pick up, starting last month, especially when we got out of the purple tier.”

At MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa in Sonoma, “There is one word that sums up Memorial Day weekend: BUSY!” creative marketing manager Liddy Parlato said in an email. “Even without the draw of BottleRock this year, MacArthur Place is all but fully booked from Thursday through Sunday nights in terms of guest rooms, spa treatments and restaurant reservations. ... We are thrilled to have a full house and look forward to a vibrant weekend.”

Al Cooper, a Petaluma native who owns the 12-room Guerneville Lodge and campground, said business is back to 2018 levels — what he considers normal after two years of disruptions.

“In 2019 we had a flood. Of course, 2020 was a disaster,” Cooper said. “We’re booked up. We’re a summer resort. We book up from Memorial Day weekend. If we’re not booked up on the weekends in the summer, I’m out of business.”

Bodega Bay Inn manager Stephanie Moore on Thursday said the hotel was fully booked, except for one room Friday and Saturday, and she had three rooms left on Sunday and five left for Monday.

“It’s been really busy since the vaccinations started, so we are happy about that,” Moore said.

But, she added, the inn continues to take health precautions. “We’re still all wearing masks and asking our guests to wear masks inside and in all the common areas.”

There is at least one other “but,” Vecchio said. And that is the staffing shortage. Workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic have moved on to other industries or are still at home with children and not working because of day care issues.

“Some hotels may not be able to open to full capacity because they don’t have the housekeeping staff to keep up,” Vecchio said. “A lack of workforce is impacting operations and potentially the visitor experience.”

“I’m not saying that’s going to be the whole summer,” she added. “But there are some headwinds when it comes to workforce.”

Added Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, “This is a workforce issue. We’re in the middle of a sea change. Hospitality is just more visible.”

He said the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce has a hospitality job board to try to attract more workers.

Restaurants in tourist hot spots either have their reservation lists filled or they are anticipating a big holiday crowd.

“Now that the restrictions have lifted, people are anxious to get out,” said Crista Luedtke, who owns Boon hotel and spa, Boon Eat + Drink, the German restaurant Brot and the El Barrio Bar, all in Guerneville. “I assume things are going to be crazy busy. We don’t take reservations. People like to get out here and tend to be unplugged.”

Luedtke said those in the restaurant business “are eager to be even more open,” since they are still restricted to 50% capacity indoors until June 15 because of state and county regulations.

She has had to limit the number of nights her restaurants are open because she can’t find enough people to work, Luedtke said.

Vecchio said Sonoma County Tourism wants to get out the message that visitors should leave the places they visit as clean as when they arrived. The agency is partnering with a national organization called Leave No Trace and county regional parks in a radio campaign to get that message across.

“Really after what they did to Sonoma County during the pandemic” — leaving rafts and inner tubes in the water, dropping cartons when they picked up takeout food — “this is a critical message,” she said. “We want to change that dynamic about what it means to visit Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

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