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Sonoma Coast beaches, parks to remain closed through Memorial Day weekend

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Sonoma Coast Closure Remains In Place

All sites except the Westside Regional Park boat launch are closed between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, with only walk-in or bike-in access initiated from the homes of coastal residents allowed during morning and evening hours. The Westside boat launch is open throughout the day for recreational fishing purposes.

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For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

The boisterous crowds that would fill the Sonoma Coast on almost any other Memorial Day weekend will be turned away this year, with the parking lots remaining closed and beaches themselves off-limits to outsiders amid ongoing efforts to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check.

Though there is expected to be broader access to Sonoma Coast beaches and parks in the near future, the county’s health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, said Tuesday it was too soon to make a move yet, with the viral fallout from a major expansion last week of local park access still under evaluation.

“It takes about at least two weeks, probably longer, for the impact of any one particular decision in terms of reopening to manifest itself,” Mase said during her daily press briefing Tuesday. “So we just opened, I believe, inland parks and the coastal parks and beaches for residents of the coastal areas just last week… So I think we just need to give it a little time to see what the impact is and then revisit after Memorial Day.”

Park rangers have spent most of the past two months chasing away thousands of visitors, most from outside the region, who have flocked to the Sonoma Coast despite the hard closure that lasted more than seven weeks. The new rules imposed last week prohibit any visitors outside of those who live close enough to walk or cycle in, while also allowing recreational anglers to make use of the boat launch at the county’s Westside Regional Park in Bodega Bay.

Residents and even some park officials say the problems with scofflaw visitors have only gotten worse since last week.

“The problem is getting the message out to people to let them know what the rules are, and let’s face it, they’ve changed a few times,” said Terry Bertels, the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District superintendent for State Parks. “We don’t just have to get the word out to locals, we have to get the word out far and wide.”

The Sonoma Coast, with its easy access and long band of public beaches and parks, attracts regular visitors from a wide swath of the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley. Many still determined to make that trip are parking in seaside neighborhoods, to the chagrin of residents, and then walking onto the sand. Also, there are no open public restrooms for them, beyond a single service station in town and Westside park, so they relieve themselves whenever and wherever, locals said.

“We work really hard in Bodega Bay, because we are a small community, kindness is always our goal, and when people are disrespecting our community, that’s when it’s hard — pooping and peeing like we’re an open toilet,” said Patty Ginochio, whose family restaurant near Bodega Bay has people knocking at the door in constant need.

She knows it’s a complicated issue, that people need their “Vitamin Sea,” and are drawn to the ocean, perhaps even more so amid worrisome times like a pandemic.

But she also worries about the area’s hardworking first responders and the potential for outsiders to introduce the coronavirus to the community and the small fire department.

Moderation sought

Officials stress that the closure is not indefinite and that they are planning for the day when it can be lifted.

Sonoma Coast Closure Remains In Place

All sites except the Westside Regional Park boat launch are closed between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, with only walk-in or bike-in access initiated from the homes of coastal residents allowed during morning and evening hours. The Westside boat launch is open throughout the day for recreational fishing purposes.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

“We can’t keep the spigot closed forever,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the Sonoma Coast. “If we could just turn it on part way, and not have so many visitors that we will promote unsafe gatherings that will promote COVID-19. We need to find a strategy that allows people to experience the wonder, the beauty and the majesty of the Sonoma Coast, without risking our capacity to respond being overwhelmed and without facilitating the spread of the disease.”

To the north, the outlook is somewhat different in Mendocino County, where residents will soon have more freedom to use seaside open space.

Bertels said Tuesday he was waiting for official word but expected to see a few park sites opened on the Mendocino Coast by the weekend, though which ones was still unclear.

The shift would allow Mendocino County residents, who are authorized under the local health order to drive up to 50  miles for outdoor recreation, to travel to the coast and park to participate in outdoor exercise. Outsiders would still be expected to abide by the statewide prohibition on nonessential travel.

Locals only, please

Bertels said the idea was to allow locals to be active — “no umbrella, beach chairs, coolers and barbecues.”

“It’s about getting outside, getting exercise and staying active,” he said.

It’s unclear if Mendocino County parks are the only state parks that might expand access this weekend, but the state and Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday acknowledged the quiet reopening of parking lots at 27 state parks around California over the previous five or six days, including five Orange County beaches, the only coastal properties involved.

Also included were five inland Sonoma County parks that opened their parking lots late last week in alignment with the opening of other parks in the county.

Those parks were Trione-Annadel, Sugarloaf Ridge, Jack London state parks and Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area.

Mase’s decision to keep public parking lots closed on the Sonoma Coast is not a surprise, as local officials have been especially conservative in their approach to parks in the era of COVID-19.

One of few California counties to close all its parks in the county as shelter-in-place became the norm, Sonoma County only reopened inland parks to vehicular traffic a week ago, when it also allowed coast residents to walk, run or bike from their homes into parks and beaches that previously had been closed.

Reopening of the parks is occurring alongside loosening of other restrictions aimed at getting businesses gradually reopened and people back to work. Mase noted Tuesday that fluctuations in the county’s COVID-19 cases over the past week — including several days on which new cases numbered in the teens after a month of mostly single-digit daily tallies — reflected higher community transmission of coronavirus among people having a greater degree of public interaction.

That’s why the relaxation of shelter-in-place has to be slow, she said.

Setting guidelines

Sonoma County Regional Park Director Bert Whitaker had said earlier that he had wanted to establish a set of rules for the coast parks at least a week in advance of Memorial Day so would-be holiday visitors were not confused by last-minute changes.

He and Hopkins, the west county supervisor, said there is also ongoing discussion with Marin County officials about coastal parks because of the mutual benefit in reopening both areas at the same time to prevent crowding at either one.

Public officials also have worked closely together to maintain alignment between coastal properties managed by California State Parks and county Regional Parks, to help limit confusion, since many people don’t distinguish between them.

But park personnel are still finding plenty of people who are unclear about the rules, though some, perhaps, willingly.

“They just hear ‘open,’ ” said Mike Lair, State Parks’ Russian River sector superintendent. “They hear what they want to hear. You have signs, and you have cones, and you still have all these people still come out, and you kind of scratch your head.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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