Lake County health officer closes Clear Lake to guard against coronavirus
They were fishing cheek-by-jowl on the north shore docks and bunched up in boats out on the water, so much so that even innkeepers still in business this past weekend recognized a need to shut the party down.
So it is that Lake County’s health officer has closed down Clear Lake to all recreation, along with Blue Lakes, Lake Pillsbury, Cache Creek and every other waterway in the county to avoid luring crowds from outside the area that might transmit the coronavirus.
Health Officer Gary Pace closed the lake effective Monday morning, taking action similar to neighboring Sonoma County, after it, too, was mobbed by outdoor enthusiasts fleeing the claustrophobia of home isolation brought on by shelter-in-place mandates now in effect statewide.
“We want people to come and enjoy our beautiful lake when this is all over,” said Lake County Supervisor Bruno Sabatier. “Now is not that time.”
Lake County has endured a string of catastrophes since the 2015 wildfire season, including historic fires and major flooding, with lake-front damage from last year that is still being repaired at Lakeport’s Library Park.
Now pandemic threatens to damage the county’s economy further, prompting closure of the largest natural fresh water lake wholly in California - the engine that drives Lake County’s economy - though restrictions on travel and commerce imposed because of the virus likely would have taken a toll anyway.
On Tuesday, officials added a new prohibition, closing all county parks and public boat ramps, docks and other public waterway access points.
County officials say the measures being take to mitigate the impact of coronavirus were necessary and right, albeit painful. The county is home to a high number of retirees, who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness if infected.
“The ultimate goal is to protect everybody in Lake County and the surrounding counties, so we don’t have a lot of movement,” said Board Chairman Moke Simon. “All of our decisions are ultimately trying to curb that as much as possible.”
Lake County so far has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, but is bracing for an outbreak, Health Officer Pace said in a written statement.
It became clear in recent days that many of the region’s hotels, motels and vacations rental owners had not understood that they were to cease offering lodging to out-of-town visitors under the countywide shelter-in-place order issued March 18. That order had exemptions for long-term occupants of motels and hotels, constructions workers from outside the region, medical workers and homeless people placed by local behavioral health personnel.
But the language was ambiguous to many and misread so that some thought they were allowed to offer lodging so long as guests followed social distancing rules.
June Vejar, who owns the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast in Upper Lake with her husband, Paul, was among them. And since guests stay in individual vintage cabooses, where they’re served breakfast, they remain isolated from other parties.
But by Friday evening, they had decided to close Sunday, as soon as their weekend patrons departed. Just stripping the beds and collecting the towels is more exposure than she wants for her and her housekeepers, she said.
Ken Taddie, who manages both Indian Beach Resort and Starlite Resort near Clearlake Oaks said he also kept his combined 16 cabins open.
Then came the weekend, with beach goers and boaters flocking to the lake.
“They were elbow-to-elbow on the docks fishing,” said Taddie, 70. “At that time, the boating restrictions weren’t in place like they are now, and there were people out there in boats, eight or nine out there in a boat, fishing for crappie and so forth, and I went out numerous times and reminded people of the six-foot distance.”
But each time, it was quickly forgotten or dismissed, and people were soon clustered together, he said.
Pace and other county officials also observed the risks being taken. After conversations Sunday, Pace issued an addendum to his previous shelter-in-place order closing recreational waterways and requiring the immediate halt of guest lodging at motels, hotels, vacations rentals and campgrounds - not a new restriction, but a clarification, he said via email.
“The aim is not to punish people, but to prevent traveling and mixing of people in order to slow the entry and the transmission of the virus in our remote and somewhat vulnerable community,” Pace wrote. “As the spread of the virus intensifies in the Bay Area and elsewhere around the country, it becomes very clear that taking strong steps in preventing the early spread could be very helpful.”
Though not yet close to high season, the coming weeks would typically begin the transition away from winter season, when recreation around the lake starts ramping up, Vejar said.
“We’ll see how many businesses survive this thing,” she said. “It’s going to be huge hit.
Taddie said he had refunded more than $3,000 in customer deposits just to those he sent away Sunday evening.
Nail Kalan, owner of Lakeview Inn in Lucerne, said he’s worried about his bills and already looking into what his insurance might cover.
But he has a few of his 20 rooms rented out to long term tenants, and in the meantime will figure out a way to make do.
“It’s people’s life, so life is more important than business,” Kalan said. “Business will survive, I think.”