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COVID Closed Tahoe to Visitors, But They Came Anyway

Despite regional prohibitions on short term rentals in Lake Tahoe, visiting skiers are still pouring in.

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It was December 26, a picturesque, snowy evening in my hometown of Tahoe City, California. I was out for a walk with my family in our neighborhood when we saw a car, stopped in the middle of the road. A young man and woman were installing snow chains on their tires.

“Are you guys OK?” I asked. 

“Yeah, we’re from L.A. We’re just trying to get to our Airbnb, which is 900 yards away,” the woman responded. She said they didn’t need any help, so we went on our way.

Starting in early December, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued regional stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state if area hospitals were experiencing less than 15 percent capacity in intensive care units. In California ski towns such as the Lake Tahoe area and Mammoth Lakes, restaurants, hotels, short-term rentals, and many other businesses were forced to close for the health and safety of their communities during what is typically one of the busiest and most lucrative times of the year. (Ski resorts—along with extensive COVID-19 policies—were able to stay open, as skiing and snowboarding were among the Governor’s approved list of activities.) News headlines in December declared “Lake Tahoe closing to tourists for holiday season.”

Read more: How Your Favorite Resort is Enduring COVID

But, based on crowded grocery stores, occupied vacation rentals, and lift lines at ski resorts, not everyone was abiding by the travel restrictions. Take the folks from L.A. Maybe they were here on essential business. You never know. But their Airbnb host, the owner of a property on my street, continued to rent to visitors throughout the month of December and early January, based on the different cars I noticed in the driveway each weekend as well as reviews that recent travelers posted on the Airbnb listing. I did contact the property owner, who declined to comment for this story. 

A spokesperson for Airbnb told SKI all hosts and travelers are reminded about the importance of following regional orders, but that enforcement is usually left to local jurisdictions. “Public health is our priority and we continue to provide hosts and guests information on local health orders to help keep communities safe,” says Adam Thongsavat, public policy manager for Airbnb. “We want to be good partners to state and local officials and have also introduced new measures that ask guests to confirm they have checked local rules and restrictions before confirming eligibility and completing a booking.”

However well-intentioned, those measures are not stopping people from coming to Tahoe and Mammoth. Local law enforcement and county agencies have taken the stance of offering information on safe protocols, rather than enforcing COVID-related orders. “We did a lot of outreach to short-term rentals, hotels, and lodging to share with them the state guidance,” says Cindy Gustafson, Placer County Board Supervisor of District 5, which covers the Lake Tahoe area. “As for enforcement, there’s only so much we can take on with our current resources. There’s also varying legal opinions if we can even enforce the governor’s orders.”

Greg St. Claire, a California restaurateur who owns multiple homes in the Tahoe area that he rents short-term through a property manager, canceled and refunded all of his December and early January rental bookings, a loss he estimates to be around $35,000, in compliance with the state-mandated orders. “I care about my neighbors, so of course I’m going to follow the rules,” he says.

Meanwhile, during a day of skiing in Tahoe, he noticed the outdoor deck of a well-known slopeside lodging property was packed with families around firepits. “Aren’t you supposed to be closed right now?” he asked a masked employee serving champagne to guests. “We found a workaround,” the server responded. “We just had guests sign a form.”

“Here I am seeing all of these empty hotels, following the rules and not making a nickel, and then this one place that’s completely packed with guests,” St. Claire says. “It was a case of the haves and the have nots.”

Remember when? View behind-the-scenes photos of the day COVID-19 shut down Aspen Snowmass.

As of January 13, the stay-at-home order for the Tahoe region has now been lifted, so hotel properties and short-term rentals are beginning to reopen. “It’s just getting through this period right now,” says Patty Baird, a board member on the Visit Truckee Tahoe Tourism Authority and the owner of the Cedar House Sport Hotel, located down the road from Northstar ski area in Truckee, California. “Nobody is thriving. Almost every business is just trying to make it to the other side. This community is strong. Even though yes, there was non-compliance happening, we get it. You can make arguments on either side. I’m also a person who believes that everyone wants to do the right thing.” 

Mammoth, however, is still effectively closed, as ICU capacity remains well below the 15 percent needed to reopen. Yet just this week in Inyo Country, which neighbors Mono County where Mammoth is located, sent a plea to short-term rental owners to follow the guidelines and stop renting to out-of-towners. Yet the ski resort is open, which is the major lure in the area. The logic is confusing at best, and dangerous at worst.

So, is Tahoe back open for visitors now? “That part gets tricky,” says Baird. “We’re still in the most restricted tier. And much of California is still in a stay-at-home order. But things are looking more promising.” 

In the meantime, the virus continues to ignore regional boundaries and many skiers and snowboarders appear to, as well.