Deputies patrol for shelter order compliance

04/08/2020

Deputies patrolling Marin’s coast have been extraordinarily busy over the past week, following the tightening of the regional shelter order last Tuesday. People have continued to drive to trailheads and open spaces, and a few nonessential businesses—mostly short-term rentals—have failed to halt operations. 

Deputies, whose numbers increased from the usual two to five on the coast in the last week, are giving some parking tickets, but mainly are issuing warnings.

“We are in the education phase,” Lieutenant Jim Hickey, the watch commander for West Marin, said on Monday. “You are always going to have the people that don’t, but for the most part, people are getting it. We aren’t citing for a failure to comply—that’s another tool we could use. If people comply and that’s it, they won’t get a ticket from us.”

Enforcing a shelter order in a tourist destination has not been simple, but the lieutenant thanked the coastal communities for cooperating. “We’ve been inundated, and everyone has been outstanding in working with all of us,” he said. 

In the four days following the updated order last week—which clarified and added restrictions and extended the terms through April—Lt. Hickey said deputies greatly stepped up enforcement on the coast, issuing around 2,000 public health notices to violators. Three extra deputies helped. 

Since Marin health officials took an independent step to close all the parks to motorized access on March 22 midway through the first sunny weekend of sheltering, deputies have focused enforcement efforts on parking lots near access points. They are patrolling federal, state and county lands.

Restrictions on parks, beaches and open spaces—including prohibitions on all public access—are encouraged in the latest Bay Area shelter order, but counties have discretion to determine their own regulations. Marin has remained steadfast about no vehicle access.

The tightened regional order shuttered all recreational areas with “high-touch equipment” and areas “that encourage gathering, including but not limited to, playgrounds, outdoor gym equipment, picnic areas, dog parks and barbecue areas.” 

In the past week, Marin County Parks has roped off areas and added signage, including lightboards on roads leading to open spaces. “Typically, our role is inviting people to the parks, making them as accessible as possible,” said Max Korten, the director of the department. “But now we are reducing accessibility, encouraging people to stay home, especially those that are the most vulnerable.”

The terms of the tightened order also forced a few local private landowners to take measures to limit access. Last weekend, the Trust for Public Land closed the parking lots that provide access to the former San Geronimo Golf Course, and the owners of Dillon Beach Resort closed the lot adjacent to the beach.

In some areas, people are simply parking elsewhere, such as at pullouts within walking distance of a trailhead or beach, Lt. Hickey said.  

Dillon Beach has been “hit particularly hard,” he added. The Department of Public Works last week put up new signs limiting parking on both sides of Dillon Beach Road where previously it was allowed on one. 

“The ocean, that’s the only thing that people can’t find in their neighborhoods,” Lt. Hickey said. “For a lot of people, the ocean is the most peaceful thing to them, to regain their inner peace, and we’ve taken that away from people. It’s hard to take something like that out of someone’s life.”

Those kinds of limitations take a toll, he said. “There has been an uptick in family arguments and things like that, and the longer people are cooped up together, the more things are going to happen like that, including domestic violence,” he said.   

Protecting deputies’ health is a priority; some are traveling from as far away as Vacaville to work in West Marin. Briefing now happens over Zoom and all vehicles are cleaned at the beginning of every new shift. Lt. Hickey said the sheriff’s office has not made new hires, but brought over deputies who would typically be off-duty.

Officers are also wearing masks—supplied during the fires in previous years—and following social distancing protocol, like standing six feet away from any members of the public, the lieutenant said. 

The office has received few reports of nonessential businesses violating the shelter order, with the exception of some short-term rentals. 

Considering the prohibition of non-essential travel, stays for the purpose of tourism have not been allowed statewide for weeks. 

As a supplement to the tightened order, Marin posted explanations online that underscored that short-term rentals must shut down.    

That online resource, a FAQ, states that short-term lodging—defined as rentals, hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts—may only continue for three reasons that constitute Covid-19 mitigation or containment. 

Operators may use what was previously short-term housing for people who need to isolate, quarantine or who are homeless; for workers who are providing essential business activities or government functions with the county; or for individuals staying overnight in Marin to perform the essential activity of caring for the health and safety of a family member. 

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he thought around half of the short-term rental operators in his district stopped renting after the shelter order first came down. Last week, the other half moved to comply, he said. 

Some operators immediately closed down. Barbara Mitchell, who owns Highway One Properties in Stinson Beach with her sisters, said the company consulted the supervisor and the local fire department and closed all 60 short-term rental properties it manages the day after the March 16 order. The company has cancelled 100 reservations until May. 

“We had to weigh what was best for the community, knowing we were going to affect a lot of income and jobs, including for all the maintenance workers and cleaners,” she said. “But the goal of sheltering in place was to keep people from traveling. By inviting people to come and go in and out of our community, we weren’t following the order.”

Ms. Mitchell said guests had a range of responses. Some people were desperate to cancel their reservations, while others persisted, hoping to escape to the beach for any amount of time. 

Now, half of their short-term properties are occupied by the people who own them or their family members, Ms. Mitchell said. A handful have offered their properties for emergency or medical workers, and some are contributing to a fund to continue paying the cleaners who are now out of work.

“I feel confident the business will come back once the order is lifted, but at this point we don’t have any work,” Ms. Mitchell said. “This is really drastic, a crazy time. It’s been a wakeup call.”

It has taken other operators longer to close their doors. After receiving a stream of complaints, Supervisor Rodoni said his office worked with deputies to pursue one case in Dillon Beach this week, where a property manager has continued to rent several of the six properties he manages. 

“We don’t have the resources to enforce this, that’s the bottom line,” the supervisor said. “But we are able to provide education, to call the owners and discuss the order and to respond to situations where we are getting complaints about certain sites.”

Ulrik Binzer, the founder of Host Compliance, a company helping the county ensure that short-term rental operators are paying the transient occupancy tax, said a quick analysis of sites such as Airbnb and VRBO shows the usual number of rentals still up. While this shows that “people are not trying to get out of this business entirely,” he said about a third have blocked out the next three months. And that doesn’t mean the remaining two-thirds are still taking bookings, he added.

Donna Clavaud, a retiree in Tomales, is still listing a cottage in her backyard, but has received cancellations through June. She wouldn’t rent it if she could, she said, but still, “No one wants to come.”

Of the seven other short-term rentals and two hotels in Tomales of which Ms. Clavaud is aware, none are being rented, she said. 

The economic implications cannot be overstated for Ms. Clavaud, who is on a fixed income. But Airbnb, where she lists her rental, is providing some relief. As a “superhost,” she is eligible for $5,000 that will come out of a pot of $10 million Airbnb has made available for emergency grants. The company is also providing $250 million as 25-percent refunds for cancellations.  

Ms. Clavaud said the biggest problem she sees pertains to second-home owners who may be coming and going between their residences. 

Supervisor Rodoni characterized second homes as a “gray area.” He wrote to the Light, “We are saying that traveling in or out of the county to another home is not essential. However, if one wants to shelter in place in the primary, or second home, for the duration of the order, that seems okay, as long as they aren’t traveling between.” 

Lt. Hickey said his deputies are unlikely to stop people on the road, as has been done in other places. He added that his office would only institute check points if the order became a complete, in-house lockdown. Marin would need extra officers for that.

Meanwhile, with the short-term rental market at a standstill, some of the existing pot of funds generated by the transient occupancy tax will go toward rental assistance. West Marin Community Services, the Bolinas Community Land Trust and the San Geronimo Valley Community Center will receive a total of $100,000 this week for distribution. 

Mr. Binzer mused about possible long-term trends in the housing market. “There’s always been this theory that short-term rentals essentially take away long-term housing stocks, and this is now an actual experiment,” he said. “A number of hosts who have been running a full-time rental business may now be trying to get long-term tenants into these rental units, just to cover their mortgages.”