Flouting shelter order, outsiders swarm coast

David Briggs
Nurses held signs urging tourists to avoid town in Point Reyes Station on Saturday, when large numbers of visitors from across the region flocked to beaches and trails after a week of mandated lockdown. Marin County moved to close parks later that day.  
03/25/2020

A wave of visitors flooded West Marin on Saturday, prompting park closures and disturbing residents, some of whom took turning people away into their own hands.

It looked like a holiday weekend from Muir Beach to Dillon Beach, with travelers from all over Northern California escaping the shelter-in-place order for a day in the sun. Traffic was congested, stores were crowded and workers were overwhelmed.

“People were being disrespectful, quite honestly,” said Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who observed the crowds and fielded over 100 complaints. “It seemed our messaging about sheltering in place and social distancing was misunderstood as a Monday-to-Friday order.”

In response to Saturday’s surge, Marin ordered every park in its jurisdiction to close—whether county, state or federal—on Sunday. The county has clarified that walking or biking in parks is acceptable, but all parking lots are closed. Residents are urged to stay in their neighborhoods.

The influx of tourists to the coast was unexpected, but not unique. Similar crowds caused issues in Southern California, Oregon and beyond. The message from locals has been that visitors are welcome, just not right now, given the threat of Covid-19 and the statewide order to stay at home except for essential activities.

With a vacuum of enforcement this past weekend—only two deputies were working on the Marin coast, as per usual—the public stepped up to encourage safe practices. Locals picketed with signs, telling people to stay where they live. Stores removed outdoor seating and put tape on the ground to encourage six feet of space. 

Signs were posted in Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Olema and the San Geronimo Valley imploring drivers to go home. In Bolinas, a small crowd gathered at the intersection at the top of town and cheered when drivers turned around.

The traffic was so bad in Dillon Beach that Mike Goebel, the owner of Dillon Beach Resort, called the sheriff to turn people away, and a deputy drove around with a loudspeaker. The line to the beach parking lot was backed up past the Oceana Marin neighborhood, and residents didn’t feel like they could go outside. 

“We have got too many people at risk here,” said Debbi Ramey, a 68-year-old resident with chronic bronchitis and thyroid issues. She said she saw two houses packed full of nearly a dozen young guests, and the beach was more crowded than a busy summer day.

“We don’t know where they’re coming from and we don’t know what their history is… We need better protection,” she said.

Tammy Acres, who runs a housecleaning business in town, has stopped operating to discourage vacation rentals, the bulk of her business.

“I encourage people to come here—obviously. It is my livelihood,” she said. “However, under these circumstances, I find it very disheartening, disrespectful and dangerous.” 

Ms. Acres started to go for a walk from her home, but people were not giving her enough space on the trail. She tried hugging the fence or turning her back to get around other walkers, but it was impossible to avoid them, so she returned home.

The crowd prompted Mr. Goebel to close the beach parking lot on Tuesday. He hesitated to do so over the weekend because he doesn’t want to restrict access and he thought visitors using the parking lot would alleviate parking issues in the village. He ultimately decided the safest route would be to discourage visitors altogether, and now he is exploring posting signs in Tomales saying that Dillon Beach is closed.

In Point Reyes Station, the sidewalks were filled with people enjoying a beautiful day. The Palace Market was forced to briefly close in the afternoon because patrons were not keeping the required six-foot distance, and employees feared catching the coronavirus. When the store reopened, it was with a one-in, one-out rule to keep the number of shoppers to around 25.

The crowd was far different from what store director Brittany Hartwell saw earlier in the week, when locals were preparing for the shelter-in-place order.

“The influx of tourists were here wanting full-service deli and ice cream cones,” she said. “They were shopping out of want, not need.”

Similar measures to control customers at the door and encourage six feet of space were taken at other stores, like the Stinson Beach and Inverness Park Markets. 

Chris Gove, the chief of the Muir Beach Volunteer Fire Department, said visitors were having bonfires and sharing food on Muir Beach. A lot of people were wandering through the neighborhood, and while first responders reported no issues, residents were “disturbed” by the visitors who were flaunting the order. He’s concerned that closing the parking lot will just relocate visitors to streets in town, which is what happened in Stinson Beach.

Clint Graves, a photographer in Stinson, drove to Pierce Point Ranch to take pictures of birds, but with so many people out and about, his lens turned to the crowds. 

“Cars were coming in masses, and there were six people per van and four people per car,” he said. “It felt like Highway 101 had just emptied off into Inverness.”

From the safety of his truck, Mr. Graves observed countless people not keeping the required six feet of distance and groups that looked more like friends than family. Near the Bear Valley Visitor Center, rangers closed Limantour Road, so people were parking in any pullout and sitting on the side of the road eating. He watched a family climb out of the same car and then inexplicably set up chairs apart from each other. 

Mr. Graves had to pull the mirrors in on his truck just to leave Pierce Point because the parking lot was overflowing, and it took him half an hour to get through Stinson Beach. He posted the photos on social media, prompting even more outrage online. 

Supervisor Rodoni said he is hopeful that improved messaging will turn people away. The director of Marin County Parks, Max Korten, is coordinating with land managers across the Bay Area to develop consistent messaging: Driving is not acceptable, except for essential travel.