Concerns remain calm on Catalina Island as coronavirus threatens tourism economy
On a typical Monday afternoon, Don Whitaker sees his 30 golf carts rented to tourists who ride them through the town of Avalon to Catalina.
“Right now it would be like Disneyland without the rides,” Whitaker said as the 70-year-old leaned back in one of his comfortable cars and admired the beauty of Avalon Bay.
This Monday, its entire fleet remained on site.
Cruise ships that drop thousands of them every Monday and Tuesday throughout the year on the Isle of Romance have stayed away until at least the end of April due to the coronavirus threat.
No one was playing on the basketball or beach volleyball courts in front of Whitaker’s company, Island Rentals. Only one family struggled in the park. Lone boats floated in the bay.
From a distance, Whitaker could see that downtown Avalon was nearly empty.
The busy season was set to start this week at Catalina, where the economy is entirely dependent on visitors. Instead, the island is already feeling the effects of a nationwide call by local, state and federal leaders to stay home for at least two weeks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer ferries that serve as a lifeline between Avalon and the rest of Southern California were nowhere near as crowded as they usually were.
“I’ve never seen it so bad,” said Gloria Jimenez, 46, who worked at the counter at Ellie’s Island Deli, the first gift shop passengers see when they get off boats. “And we’re just getting started.”
Husband and wife Randy Brannock and Mary Stein, who lead the expeditions to Catalina Island, tried to enjoy their morning coffee with friends outside of the Catalina Island Brewery, but no could not: they had just dismissed their crew.
“Everyone’s in bad shape,” Brannock said. Stein added, “I hope healthy people would come here again,” while acknowledging that they probably wouldn’t now.
Islanders have been resigned to one of the greatest economic successes of their lives. But they also offered perspective.
The relative isolation from the rest of Southern California has long hardened the Avalonians to the vagaries of disasters – long droughts, loss of its status as a Hollywood playground, and the epic fires that destroyed much of Avalon in 1915 and caused a mass evacuation in 2007.
“There’s that worry about what’s next,” Whitaker said as a half-full touring truck headed for Catalina’s backcountry. “But we’ll get there.”
“When we’re this little, we take care of each other,” Bear Opah, a guide for Catalina Island Co., said from a counter. Its usually packed 11-hour nature tour only had five reservations.
“We’re all going to lose,” colleague Pamela Ibarra said as she sold miniature golf tickets to a couple in San Diego, “but we’ll all win in the end.”
Discussions between officials at Catalina, LA County and the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention on how to fight the specter of the coronavirus have been going on for weeks. No cases have been reported here, but the lifeblood that powers Catalina’s economy – tourists – is also the most likely way for the disease to emerge.
“We’re an island with limited capabilities to deal with something like this,” said Michael Parmer, deputy city manager.
He said talks with Carnival Cruise Line, the main line that visits Catalina, continued long before President Trump asked the industry for a 30-day moratorium on all cruises to the United States. Avalon has asked that they don’t come back until at least April 30, Parmer said, “for an overabundance of caution.”
“Our greatest burden is balancing the economic viability of the island with the well-being of everyone,” Councilor Cinde MacGugan-Cassidy said in front of her family’s hardware store. Cruise ship passengers spend alone about $ 23 million per year, according to the Catalina Chamber of Commerce. “If that means taking a break [from cruises], then that must be it.
On Catalina’s first day in her self-imposed economic quarantine, island life seemed as bucolic as ever, even as people throughout the year kept abreast of the ever-changing news. The local Vons – one of the most profitable in Southern California – ran out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bleach, just like on the mainland, but store clerks assured customers that a new shipment had arrived.
Outside the Catalina Island Medical Center, volunteers in a tent asked anyone who had an appointment to fill out a survey to find out if they had recently had a cough or fever. A nurse wearing a gauze mask and a stethoscope took the temperature of elderly patients.
“We know our patients here personally,” CEO Jason Paret said on his way to another conference call. At the end of last week, he canceled the annual hospital health fair.
Mayor Ann Marshall tried to find a silver lining. “As people don’t come, it creates a natural social distancing,” she said outside town hall as residents greeted her only to find it was now open by appointment only. you. “But what worries me is that tourism is our only economy and it will be affected.”
Locals tried to wrap up a few final cheers before all bars were forced to close and restaurants could only offer take-out orders, per Los Angeles County guidelines issued that morning that were due to go into effect. force at midnight.
Drinkers enjoyed the foam at lunchtime at the Marlin Club and watched Trump urge Americans to face the coronavirus together as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” blared through the digital jukebox. Few customers wanted to speak to reporters, although one San Diego resident, Steve, was heard bragging about having had only one flu shot his entire life and “was not afraid.”
On the other side, the staff at Coyote Joe’s took phone calls from regulars wondering if it was open. General Manager Ricardo Leyva placed a sign outside with a sad face saying only take out orders. “Better to be careful and start early,” he says.
The few wandering tourists seemed lost, but others took advantage of the small crowd. Samuel Flores from Pico Rivera took the Catalina Express at 6 a.m. with two friends to celebrate his birthday. His goal for the day: to catch yellowtail tuna that he could turn into sashimi. The coronavirus was the last thing they thought about.
“We’re young, we’re healthy,” the 25-year-old said, while Hailey Sniderman, 23, from Norwalk, dismissed the concerns as a “giant sensation” being carried by the media.
On the small public beach of Avalon, Marco Marroquin sipped mint tea while watching the waves roll. He had arrived from Bakersfield on Sunday and noted that there were far fewer people on the boat.
“I haven’t even gone so far as to think about how a drop in the number of visitors will affect everyone here,” said the 50-year-old. “It’s just sad. It’s just such a special place.
Later that day, Matt and Gladys Malouf watched their toddlers frolic in the sand. The two had booked their vacation at Catalina in December and didn’t want to cancel it. But before leaving their Redlands home, Gladys said she “stocked up a bit because we didn’t know what we would go back to.”
The couple were one of the few tenants in their hotel.
“I feel bad for the people here,” Mike said as he took off his blanket to help his children dig a makeshift river to the sea. “They can’t just go out and get something else to do. . “