Thousands flock to North Bay beaches and parks, heedless of health protocols

Motorists exiting Highway 1 to get to Doran Beach got some bad news Saturday afternoon.

The parking lots at Doran Regional Park were full, signs along the road announced. At the entrance, ranger Gabe Lindeman confirmed that the crowd at the beach was highly unusual for a Saturday in March.

“This is not typical,” said Lindeman, who allowed that he could tell “people have been cooped up, forced from their routines. They seem really happy to be here.”

Spitting in the eye of a pandemic, taking advantage of provisions in Sonoma County’s shelter-in-place order allowing people to use the region’s parks and open spaces, legions of sun-seekers headed to the coast. While those excursions provided sorely needed fresh air and recreation for people weary of life in the shadow of a frightening disease, some of them helped facilitate, arguably, the spread of those very microbes.

So delighted were many beachgoers to escape their homes and apartments, they made no effort to stay 6 feet from one another.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s interim health officer, frowns on such pilgrimages because they violate the spirit of the shelter-in-place rule. Family walks in the neighborhood or to a local park, short outings with the dog, are meant to give residents brief relief from being confined at home, she said.

“We recommend limiting outdoor activity to staying close to home,” she said. “We don’t expect people to be driving 20 miles to go to a beach.”

Admonishing the state’s young people “still out there on the beaches thinking it’s time to party,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told them Saturday that “it’s time to grow up, time to wake up.”

Failing to heed such recommendations, thousands of people flocked to sandy expanses from Jenner’s Goat Rock Beach to Dillon Beach, 25 miles south. Schoolhouse Beach, Shell Beach, Salmon Creek Beach - all were crowded, some inundated.

Bodega Bay itself was “overwhelmed” with visitors, according to Patty Ginochio, to whom locals refer as the “virtual mayor” of that town.

The crowds in the North Bay’s parks - not just those along the coast - and the profusion of people failing to practice proper social distancing is a problem that has definitely snagged the attention of Sonoma County officials.

“We need to all be thinking about how do we distance ourselves from one another, especially from those not in our households,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County’s parks system, who spent the past three days observing behaviors in several of those parks.

What he saw left him “concerned,” he said. “Everyone needs to do their part and stay 6 feet apart.”

That rule was flouted countless times Saturday, according to Ginochio, who points out that residents of Bodega Bay, many of them elderly “and in the high-risk” category, are endangered by the visitors swarming the town and its nearby beaches, where she witnessed “large gatherings with no social distancing.”

Crowds were, if anything, more intense at Dillon Beach, a privately owned property 15 miles south.

“No exaggeration,” said Lesley Slater, a year-round Dillon Beach resident, “it was like the Fouth of July.” The parking lot quickly filled, creating a line of cars that backed up several hundred yards to the Dillon Beach General Store. Slater witnessed crowds of people, some carrying open containers of alcohol, “not practicing anything remotely” like social distancing.

“If we can’t follow social distance protocols, we are not going to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in Sonoma County,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose 5th District covers west county and its beaches.

Those beaches are “a great resource for exercise, mental health and well-being,” she added. “But if people can’t follow protocols, we can’t keep them open.”

Problems exist in parks away from the coastline, as well. Whitaker and his staff have observed clustering of visitors on trails and at what they call “pinch points.” Hikers are required, when they encounter other hikers on a trail, to move away from them in order to create at least a 6-foot barrier.

While on a bike ride in Taylor Mountain Regional Park a few days ago, Whitaker encountered numerous groups on the trail who made no effort to create the required buffer. On four occasions, the parks director engaged those hikers, cheerfully reminding them of the need to create social distance.

Three of those groups were courteous, he recalled. “The fourth was like, ‘Whatever, dude.’?”

At Doran Beach, fifth grader Shaun McCarthy kept a 60-feet gap from his father, Mike, while they played catch with a baseball. Shaun’s best sport is basketball, but his spring hoops league was just canceled. He’s coping with the disappointment by listening to rebroadcasts of Warriors NBA championship series classics on 95.7 The Game.

Nearby, a Petaluma woman looked on with bemusement as her son held a headstand for up to 30 seconds. Right-side-up again, the lad spoke excitedly of the dead jellyfish they’d seen, the diameter of a manhole cover.

Welcome a tonic as this beach outing was, said his mother, “I feel almost guilty,” she noted. But they were observing social distance, she said, “and it’s what we needed to do.”

They didn’t need it as badly as Danielle, just down the beach, the mother of four children under 9 years old. It had been a long week for all of them. “We’re still figuring out the whole online learning thing, and they’re all in each other’s space. It’s been a challenge.”

Holding down a nearby beach chair and clutching an open bottle of craft beer was her friend, the father of a 9- and 7-year-old who were closer to the water. And where was their mother?

“She’s home taking a nap.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report.

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