TRUCKEE — California’s Department of Public Health on Sunday again ordered Placer County businesses closed in an attempt to mitigate the surging number of COVID-19 cases across the state.
One day later, Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed statewide restrictions on bars and indoor dining, as well as nonessential retail, gyms and hair salons in counties on the state’s watch list.
In Truckee, the announcement came as a surprise to many bar owners, who’d been able to reopen for roughly a month before again being forced to give the “last call” to customers.
“I had no indication, other than we live in this world where that can happen at any moment,” said Alyssa Thomas, owner of the Tourist Club in Truckee. “Because the governor has been doing this by-county thing for the last week, it was a surprise for him to abandon the county distinction.”
The Tourist Club reopened after several months in early June before receiving word that it would again have to close its doors.
“It was definitely more difficult having to close again,” added Thomas. “The first time around there was a goal in mind. This time, it was just painful … we were just beginning to get our feet under us.”
Fortunately, Thomas had filed paperwork with the town of Truckee in early June to begin food service at the bar. The same morning she filed, Newsom announced bars could reopen. Now, the paperwork she figured was no longer necessary will help the Tourist Club reopen sooner rather than later.
“It’s what’s probably going to help me out right now,” she said.
Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson said she is particularly concerned for vulnerable businesses that just began to recover from the spring’s financial losses.
“Often people say, ‘Business is bad. It’s all about profits.’” Gustafson said. “No, people need to put food on their table and take care of their children. For so many small business owners this is about paying their bills. Profit is secondary after paying your bills.”
Liz Bowling, North Lake Tahoe Resort Association’s director of communications and public relations, said it is hard to watch people who have taken the opportunity to create something potentially lose their dream — and a stable income.
“Maybe the most frustrating part of this as a policy maker is looking at the linkages between where people are coming in contact and the types of businesses that are shutting down,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson said she values her constituents’ health above all, but laments the loss of livelihood for many struggling, family-owned businesses.
“I don’t want to downplay the health concerns,” Gustafson said. “If I’m focused on businesses right now, it’s because I feel that certain types of businesses are paying the price.”
Among those hardest hit are salon and barbershops, told to close up shop in North Tahoe as part of increased restrictions in Placer County.
“It’s definitely been challenging and frustrating,” said Tiana O’Neal, owner of Salon Bella Vita in Tahoe City. “We’re just rolling with the punches and trying our best to get through it.”
O’Neal said the salon, which has only a handful of chairs, reopened June 1 and then with little notice was told to close on Monday. As a resident of the area, O’Neal said she has often been disappointed in seeing a lack of social distancing and face coverings in North Tahoe, but added that businesses aren’t to blame.
“That’s one of the most frustrating things for me, given they just shut my business down,” she said. “I don’t feel like it’s the businesses that are the problem, especially like my little salon — we have five chairs. And what we went through to reopen, all the precautions that we put in place, all the time, energy, money that we had to put into the salon to reconfigure things.
“So, yeah it’s frustrating when you see packed beaches, no social distancing, no masks. In my neighborhood there’s short-term rentals that are turning over every two days … it’s frustrating seeing that happen and then being told to shut down my tiny little business.”
Business-wise, O’Neal said the salon had been slammed with calls for appointments since reopening — many of which are now likely to head to other salons or barbershops in Incline Village or Truckee.
“We’re suffering in that sense,” she said. “We’re losing all of this business to salons that are 20 minutes away from us just because we got shut down.”
Thomas said she’s already been in talks with Truckee to use parking spaces in front of her Tourist Club bar to serve food and drinks. And while expressing her gratitude for the town’s support, Thomas remains frustrated at the way the state has handled the closures.
“I’m not sure why California decided to reopen prior to making sure that they could test everyone who needed to be tested and get the results back at a reasonable amount of time,” said Thomas. “That, in my opinion, is a big part of why we’re back to where we are.”
CURRENT CASE NUMBERS
Placer County’s online COVID-19 Case Tracker indicates a steady increase in the county’s cases beginning two weeks after the county began to reopen in early May. At the end of May, there were 215 confirmed cases. As of Friday morning, Placer County reported 1,203. Of those positive tests, 877 are listed as “likely recovered” and 11 deaths have been reported by Placer County.
East Placer has had 77 people test positive, while Mid-Placer has 160 and South Placer has the vast majority of positive tests at 966. The county’s seven-day positive test rate was 6% Friday morning.
There are currently 50 patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Placer County, including 10 in intensive care.
Nevada County has not yet been added to the governor’s watch list of counties, but also has seen a steady climb in cases over the past six weeks, from 41 cases on May 31 to 197 as of Friday morning. Of those, 133 are reported as recovered, with 63 cases being active, about 32% of total cases. One person has died due to COVID-19 in Nevada County.
Of all positive cases reported countywide, 113 have been recorded in eastern county — 103 of which are in the Truckee area 96161 zip code. Western county has totaled 84 cases, with 54 of those in the Grass Valley area zip codes of 95945 or 95949. Monday, July 13, saw Nevada County’s highest single day total of positive cases with 17 reported. Twelve new cases were reported Thursday. Active cases are not broken down by geographic location in Nevada County reporting.
According the county’s coronavirus dashboard, as of Friday morning, there were no hospitalized patients among the 63 active cases due to COVID-19 in Nevada County.
Testing in the Truckee-Tahoe area has been a frustrating experience for many. The free testing site in Truckee, according to Optum, is able to schedule 144 appointments a day, but as of Wednesday the next available appointment is a week out.
Thomas said she was tested on July 6 and as of Tuesday, still had not received results.
Nationally, Quest Diagnostics says is has the capacity to perform up to 125,000 molecular diagnostic tests a day, which is roughly double its capacity from eight weeks ago. By the end of the month, the company expects to increase its capacity by another 25,000.
Despite the increase, according to Quest, demand for testing is increasing faster, resulting in a turnaround time of seven or more days.
Harry Weis, president and CEO of Tahoe Forest Health System, said anyone experiencing symptoms or who has been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 should head to Tahoe Forest’s locations in Incline Village and Truckee, where testing can be done immediately. A physician’s referral is needed to receive a test at Tahoe Forest Health System.
“If they feel they have symptoms they should come to our ER and be evaluated and if they are coming for COVID purposes, there is no out-of-pocket cost,” said Weis. “That’s the commitment we made to the federal government.”
Weis added that there is growing concern among health officials about individuals ignoring their overall health, and avoiding hospitals due to fear of being infected with COVID-19.
“We are very concerned for the overall health of our patients. If people aren’t taking care of their overall health care needs, whether it’s cardiac issues, diabetes issues, cancer issues … you really need to stay on top of your health care, because when everything settles COVID is still going to be the minority issue of issues that we as Americans deal with over the course of the year,” said Weis. “There will be several multiples more of people dying per year of cardiac disease or cancer than there will be from COVID.”
Weis added that of the roughly 1,050 team members at Tahoe Forest, around 20 have tested positive for COVID-19. He said that through tracer testing it was determined that none caught the virus from work, and that “hospitals are safe.”
COST OF CLOSING
Gustafson said the gyms, restaurants and salons that she has patronized since the region entered Stage 3 of reopening adhere strictly to state recommendations. They want to keep their businesses open, she said, to keep their workers healthy and customers happy.
Restaurants paved the way into the new normal, said Bowling of the resort association, and are making the most of a Placer County ordinance that allows them to extend their outdoor footprint to accommodate more guests in a safe manner.
“The news came down on Sunday to an industry that was already hit really hard,” Bowling said. “Now, they’re already making steps to help operate in a different capacity.
Gustafson said the state’s recommendation may not carry the same weight in a casual setting. Based off of the numbers — over 60% of Placer County’s infected are between 18 and 45 years old — Gustafson suspects informal and familial gatherings may be the most tangible hot spots.
“A lot of it linked to family gatherings, which we have no enforcement with,” Gustafson said. “It’s hard for me to justify to local business owners that because others are misbehaving they should pay the price.”
In Truckee, education comes before enforcement, said Deverie Acuff, support services manager with the Truckee Police Department.
“Our acting chief of police, as well as our public works director, went door to door yesterday to speak with business owners to help with the roll back into Phase II and what options they have to operate,” Acuff said.
“This is a challenging time, and the town is working with business owners to collaborate and support,” she said. “Nevada County Health is also working with businesses to educate them on the enforcement process if guidelines are not adhered to.”
Gustafson said community members need to embrace their personal responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus head-on.
“There’s so much disbelief,” Gustafson said. “That rhetoric gets in the way of people doing the right thing.”
Bowling said she anticipated a jagged recovery in terms of COVID-19 case numbers.
“The governor said this isn’t going away any time soon, until there’s a vaccine and various therapies,” Bowling said.
“Unfortunately we’re going to see businesses that can’t sustain this jaggedness in this opening and closing and figuring that out,” she said. “It’s up to us to help maintain their viability.”
Gustafson said her office has had to balance changing pressures, decipher conflicting information and stay abreast of revised restrictions, but ultimately hopes to teach the public to take care of themselves and others.
“How you legislate human behavior is not easy,” Gustafson said.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at [email protected] or 530-550-2643. Freelance writer Rebecca O’Neil contributed to this story.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order on the closure of nonessential retail, gyms and hair salons is in effect for counties on the state’s watch list. The Union regrets the error.