There’s no wall barring entry from county to county in California, but there certainly are significant differences in what can and can’t be done between Lake Tahoe’s surrounding counties.
As the coronavirus continues its carnage, local businesses are pushing beyond their brick and mortar boundaries — taking to the streets, literally. Outdoor services have expanded into public space. Even road closures aren’t off the table as establishments find ways to stay afloat.
The state has been teasing a reemergence into coronavirus-inspired sector shutdowns — first, a return to the stay-at-home order came in Imperial County on June 26, followed by the closure of bars in six California counties two days later, and so on, until Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on July 13 the statewide discontinuation of indoor operations for restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, museums, and cardrooms. Bars, he furthered, must stop all operations.
The mandate came in response to a significant rise in the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. As of July 19, there were 9,329 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID in California.
With such marching orders in place, Truckee restaurants, many of which were already providing outdoor dining services, are spilling onto the sidewalks and into parking spaces.
And there’s no limit on the use of parking spots, says Denyelle Nishimori, community development director for the Town of Truckee. If it’s public property, it’s fair game.
“On private property, they need owner approval, and if there are other businesses, there needs to be coordination among the businesses,” she wrote in an email. “We are asking for businesses to consult with the town first, but we are not requiring any formal plans to be submitted. We are doing it hands-on in the field as a way to expedite.”
While some businesses (check out Moody’s at the corner of Donner Pass and Bridge Street) have their own outdoor dining stages, Commercial Row neighbors Squeeze In and Best Pies Pizzeria & Restaurant are sharing outdoor seating options: Squeeze In has full claim to a stage during most of the morning, with Best Pies swinging in for its time share slot at 11 a.m. weekday mornings and at noon on the weekends.
The town is fine-tuning minimum standards for seating arrangement barriers adjacent to roadways, but Nishimori did say the businesses will need to provide the barriers. There will be more barrier clarity provided later this week.
And while current expansion hasn’t pushed far enough out to require road closures, town staff is open to it.
“Donner Pass Road through downtown would be the first primary street we are looking at,” Nishimori explained. “Most likely going to a one-way eastbound with a one-way westbound on Jibboom. We are not there yet, as businesses are still getting set-up outside and working through their logistics, but if a road closure makes sense at some point, we will move in the direction.”
Though not yet required to stop indoor services, retail stores, too, have the option to utilize outdoor displays. The town emergency declaration issued on March 10 released some of the town’s zoning restrictions, allowing for such business extensions to take place. The softening of zoning restrictions was originally to end July 31, but with new peaks Nishimori said town staff has pushed it to Oct. 1 or so — a final call will be made this week.
But Newsom didn’t stop with the blanket limitations on restaurants, movie theaters, and bars.
“All the counties on the updated monitoring list, we are directing they close indoor operations in additional sectors,” the governor said in his July 13 COVID update. “… Now, with counties on the monitoring list, we have this list: fitness centers, places of worship, offices for non-critical sectors, personal care services (that includes hair salons, barbershops), and indoor malls.”
Placer County joined the statewide monitoring list on July 9. Currently, the county has crossed statewide thresholds with a 5% positive test rate across seven days and 109.1 cases per 100,000 county residents over two weeks (rising over 100 cases puts counties into the danger zone).
As of publication, other Tahoe counties were approaching the threshold as well: Nevada County had 80 cases per 100,000 residents and 2.3% test positivity; El Dorado County currently sits at 90.1 cases per 100,000; and a 4.4% test positivity.
In a business workshop for Nevada County restaurants, wineries, and breweries, public health director Jill Blake attributed the top cause of disease spread to social gatherings, as has been echoed by other health officials. However, she said there have also been “workplace exposures, and people who have been exposed at bars and restaurants and churches, so it’s not just social gatherings.”
Tom Turner is the managing partner for a number of businesses scattered around the lake: Gar Woods Grill & Pier in Carnelian Bay; Caliente in Kings Beach; Riva Grill in South Lake; Bar of America in Truckee; and the up-and-coming Sparks Water Bar in the Truckee Meadows. That’s five establishments across the four counties and two states surrounding Lake Tahoe.
Though his California dining establishments are complying with the mandate, Turner described the re-implementation as “maddening.”
“They can pinpoint where all the viruses are occurring or cases are occurring by zip code,” he said, “yet they blanket the whole state because that’s easier instead of saying these zips need to shut down.”
In light of California restaurants recommencing dine-in services back on May 12, Turner’s four currently operating businesses rehired everyone who wanted to come back. But some former employees chose not to return, Turner speculates, due to the federal government’s unemployment offering of $600 a week. He said, “People aren’t going to come back to work if they can make $4,000 doing nothing.”
Tahoe Fit in Tahoe City is in a unique position: Though allowed to reopen on June 12, Katie Peterson, owner, chose a different path for her Placer County fitness center.
“From the feedback, people, I thought, would be itching to get back in the gym,” Peterson said. “But I never actually reopened. I have just been doing virtual class through Zoom … When Newsom called to close things again, I was happy that I didn’t reopen; I didn’t go through all that, reopen and then be told to be closed again.”
In addition to her recorded classes, Peterson also hosts small, physically distanced and masked classes on the field at North Tahoe High School or in the alleyway by her studio. The fact that Tahoe Fit is a class-based workout program rather than machines is convenient for keeping things going.
“I haven’t had any of my clients say I’m going to stop coming to you because I want to go to Truckee and be in class,” she said. “I’ve heard of people going to get their hair done and nails done in Reno, but personally I haven’t lost clients to wanting to have in person classes the next county over.”
Though Peterson says her client base has remained loyal, she is worried about when the first snowfall hits. She’s still paying rent for a studio that only she is using to record her virtual classes.
“Am I just going to be a summer, outdoor workout person and do some virtual stuff?” she asked. “… I’m doing whatever I can to keep Tahoe Fit alive.”
It’s resiliency like that that’s caught the attention of Cassie Hebel in Truckee, who has been impressed with the adaptability of the restaurant sector, told to pivot once again.
As executive director of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association, Hebel praised “how fast the restaurants work to move forward to sustain their business; they’re addressing it, they’re figuring it out, they’re moving forward.”
Though each day has possibility for a push forward or pulling back of closures, it’s not just the immediate future — the next few days or weeks — that needs to be addressed. For Hebel, planning ahead for Truckee’s economy falls into two additional buckets: the short-term future and long-term future.
“There’s the future within the next five to six months,” Hebel explained. “What does it look like in the fall, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, as well as the 2021 winter? We do not know what the future holds, what mandates will be implemented or lifted. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but how can we best plan for a future that will sustain our businesses?”
By 2021, Hebel hopes there’s a vaccine in hand, and if there is, she said, “TDMA is ready to provide what we provide for our community, which is great events.”