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'We want you here... but not right now' | Tahoe locals alarmed at continued visitors, vacation rentals amid COVID-19 pandemic

With a statewide stay-at-home mandate, you might think vacation destinations like Tahoe would be ghost towns. But that's not the case... and locals are worried.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — As California Governor Newsom issued a statewide "stay at home" mandate Sunday, many would assume that amidst the COVID-19 virus pandemic, vacation destinations like Tahoe would be ghost towns. 

But many yearround locals, like Mike Stram who has lived in Truckee for 27 years, are worried as they watch tourists and second-home owners continue to the area.

"Just last weekend it was crazy here," said Stram. "It was like a normal tourist weekend."

According to the United States' Census Bureau, although nearly 20 million visit the Tahoe region annually, only around 40,000 live there year round.  

As Stram and his wife walk through their local grocery store, noticing license plates with out-of-town car dealerships and tires unequipped for snowfall, their concern grows, specifically about the capacity of their medical facilities.

RELATED: Gov. Newsom says virus likely to curb state spending | Local coronavirus updates

According to locals and officials alike, the small hospitals in the Tahoe region are equipped to handle the quick broken bone from the ski slope. But when it comes to a pandemic, it's another story.

"We have six ICU beds here," said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Jason Collin. "Even without a very highly transmittable virus like this going around, often times those beds are close to full, so with the COVID-19 here it compounds that and creates a really scary scenario."

The lack of medical resources is at the top of the mind of many in the area. However, the immediate worry of the decline in tourism i.e. the major funds for the area is also worrisome. It's caused Tahoe officials to change their traditional message of a friendly face and welcoming arms.

"We want you here… but not right now," said Collins. "That's our message.?

For tourism experts like Carol Chaplin, CEO of Lake Tahoe Visitor's Authority, it's an odd predicament.

"It's our job to promote tourism, which is not what we’re doing right now, so it feels a little funny," said Chaplin. "This is the biggest challenge in this destination I’ve ever seen and we can get past it if we all pull together and do the right thing."

Chaplin admitted she's had to pull all current tourism advertising, noting it will be used at a later date when it's safe for folks to come back to the area.

READ MORE: Several UC Davis hospital staff test positive for coronavirus, 'many' more expected

Other locals have felt the devastation of the pandemic. As the President of Tahoe Getaways and Chariman on Visit Truckee, Jim Winterberger has tried to do the "right thing" by ceasing renting 250 vacation properties in the area to leisure travelers.

"Honestly, this has been a gutting experience. I ran this company on September 11, 2001. I ran it through tough times of 2008 and 2009, this has been very different," admitted Winterberger.

Winterberger said his company has already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the rental business. He expects that to hit a million shortly.

Although it's been financially devastating, he is urging others renting out properties to follow suit.

"There's still a demand to come to Tahoe," said Winterberger. "I can tell you locals here are not happy to see tourists here right now. They’re not happy to see second home owners here right now. There's a level of fear and anxiety I’ve never seen here before."

While on Tuesday Placer County issued a clarification saying short term rentals are not considered "critical infrastructure" and that these rentals should only be used by those needing homes i.e. the homeless, those in isolation or quarantine or if they're being used by the homeowners or family of homeowners.

READ MORE: California needs 50,000 additional hospital beds, Gov. Newsom says

Airbnb's response to COVID-19 has been to offer guests full refunds and hosts no charge cancellations for reservations booked on or before March 14 and a check in date of April 14 or earlier. Yet, searching rentals on the Airbnb website Tuesday evening proved that there were still availability in the area.

"We've seen a huge drop in visitation, but not as much as we’d like," said Chaplin.

That's why locals like Stram want more enforcement. He hopes California officials will shut down Airbnb and other similar rentals altogether.

"I believe Airbnbs should be completely stopped,"  said Stram. "It's not the time for somebody to be making a profit or self-subsidizing themselves at other people’s expense. I think that’s just tragic right now."

Follow the conversation on Facebook with Andie Judson.


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