Sonoma County's Russian River and coast beset with unease as summer season begins amid pandemic
The arrival of Memorial Day weekend in western Sonoma County conjures images of raft flotillas descending the Russian River, sun-dazed beachgoers planted along the coast, jammed highways by day and restaurants and bars crowded with patrons by night.
The holiday marks the beginning of summer, and, for many, the west county's refreshing waters, majestic redwood forest and rugged coast offer no better place to enjoy it.
And this year, even during a global pandemic, with local and statewide stay-home orders the law of the land, most everyone still expects a flood of people to the region, as temperatures soar toward the century mark and the restless mood that has seized the masses drives them to open air.
Already, the stream of day-trippers and overnight guests discernible in recent weeks has provoked unease in this region where tourist dollars drive much of the economy. Overnight lodging for all but essential guests is supposed to be shut down, restaurants are still off limits save for takeout and patio service, and access to river and ocean beaches, along with other amenities, is limited.
And yet - “People never stopped coming here,” said Kelly Martin, manager at Pelican Plaza Grocery & Deli in Bodega Bay. Many, if not most, are from the Sacramento area, Stockton and other Central Valley towns, and parts of the Bay Area, she and others said.
The rising traffic, as in tourist destinations across the nation, has fueled an existential conflict for residents and business people here, pitting their sense of health and safety amid the pandemic against the need to shore up their livelihoods while the days are long and warm.
For many, these are the weeks that can make or break the year, said county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district takes in the lower Russian River corridor, plus the 55-mile Sonoma Coast, all of it closed and barricaded to visitors, with limited access only for nearby residents who must arrive at the beach by foot or bike.
“There is so much tension in the community right now you could cut it with a knife,” Hopkins said.
Resorts throughout the region remain closed. Canoe and kayak rentals are still shut down. Major events, including the Lazy Bear Week in Guerneville and the Bohemian Grove encampment in Monte Rio, both scheduled for July, were canceled. Vacation rentals remain prohibited, as well, though local residents believe some are still being rented illegally.
Even before the virus hit, much of the business community in the lower river region was in recovery mode from a nightmarish year that began with historic flooding and was capped by an unprecedented wildfire, power blackouts and the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people.
Loosened county restrictions, including the resumption of patio service for restaurants, breweries and wine tasting rooms that serve food, have offered a glimmer of hope to some in the local hospitality sector, which has shed tens of thousands of jobs since March.
But the prospect of more outsiders coming through the region isn't sitting well with many. Small communities dotted throughout the area have high numbers of retired people who are vulnerable to poor health outcomes if they fall ill with COVID-19. Many already have had their fill with those who would flout social distancing guidance and mandates to wear face coverings.
River residents “are looking out for each other,” said Doug Gould, 59.
Visitors disregard the rules
Yet encounters with visitors can be unavoidable, particularly at food markets on the coast and along the river, with so little else open, and nowhere more than the Guerneville Safeway, the area's only supermarket. There, newly marked one-way aisles and mask requirements notwithstanding, locals frequently complain of strangers who refuse to follow the rules.
Then they go out into the community and ignore the health orders, Gould said, especially young people who come to town, park in a neighborhood and cross to the river despite beach closures.
“For some reason, the sun comes out, the disease is gone away,” he said.
Reports from around west county, and particularly the coast, make clear that visitors from far and wide have disregarded instructions to stay put in order to avail themselves of the vistas and ambiance of the North Coast.
So people like Jeffrey Q. Smith are preparing to keep those destinations from being overrun.
Smith, 75, a retired wildlife biologist living in Santa Rosa, is a volunteer docent for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the venerable nonprofit that looks out for the parks and beaches of western Sonoma County. On Friday, Smith was preparing for his first shift in months at recently reopened Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville.