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SLO County is asking tourists to stay away for now, but is it working?

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Located just a few miles northeast of Arroyo Grande amid the rolling hills that make up SLO County wine country, The Casitas Estate markets itself as the ideal venue for a picture-perfect destination wedding—complete with a vineyard, shuttle services, and four luxury hotel rooms that can hold up to 10 guests.

The coming warmer months would normally be some of the busiest at Casitas, and with weddings already booked into 2021, owner Tony Goetz said this year was shaping up to be a fruitful one. That all changed when COVID-19 hit.

After the state and county imposed indefinite shelter-at-home orders in mid-March, Goetz said the calls flooded in. Couples hoping to tie the knot in May and June canceled their plans almost immediately. Goetz spent about five full days fielding cancellation calls, first for weddings in July and August, then September. Now even October's calendar isn't as full as it once was.

When Casitas isn't hosting weddings, it acts as a kind of luxury bed and breakfast. Although Casitas Estate has remained open throughout the pandemic, Goetz said he didn't have a single guest for almost eight weeks.

"It's been a little challenging," he told New Times on May 29. "This past weekend we had two out of the four rooms full, and that was the busiest it's been in three months."

And that's as busy as Casitas Estate is allowed to be for now.

DAY TRIPPERS Despite travel and other restrictions, downtown Pismo Beach was bustling on May 29. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DAY TRIPPERS Despite travel and other restrictions, downtown Pismo Beach was bustling on May 29.

With SLO County working its way through a phased reopening plan and summer just around the corner, visitors are beginning to return to the region. Despite a statewide shelter-at-home order that prohibits all leisure travel, SLO County's beaches saw big crowds in early May, leading to concerns that tourists from areas with higher rates of COVID-19 could spread it to residents here.

So on May 17, the county Public Health Department imposed an emergency order limiting occupancy in hotels and other short-term lodging facilities to 50 percent capacity. The order encourages the lodging industry to ensure that potential guests are only visiting if necessary—those traveling for essential work, to self-isolate safely, or to care for a vulnerable person in the area.

The order is just a piece of a larger, countywide effort to discourage tourism for the duration of the pandemic. County-operated campgrounds are closed to out-of-county visitors and the county recently launched a $9,000 advertising campaign asking potential visitors to stay home. It's a move that public officials say is critical to preventing further illness.

Though officials say it appears to be working, it's been a difficult time for hoteliers like Goetz. His business was already hurting, and now he has to enforce a set of somewhat ambiguous rules. The line between essential and nonessential travel is a fine one (Isn't taking a break for the sake of mental health essential?), and although he always asks potential guests why they plan to stay, he doesn't feel comfortable interrogating callers about their plans.

That being said, Goetz said he completely understands why the county wants and needs to limit tourism.

"But we're in a conundrum because obviously we need to pay the bills," Goetz told New Times. "[Missed payments] are not forgiven; they're delayed."

The hotel occupancy order puts the responsibility of enforcement and potential for consequences on already struggling short-term lodging facilities. And SLO County's lodging occupancy rates in March and April of this year were already less than half of what they were last year, according to Visit SLO Cal.

In mid-May, the county started targeting residents in neighboring counties with digital ads. Paid for by county emergency contingency funds, the ads ask potential tourists to postpone their visits to SLO County until after COVID-19.

Despite the discouragement, SLO County's coast was packed over Memorial Day weekend with what officials say were likely day trippers.

At a press briefing on May 27, county Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said the county audited some local lodging facilities over Memorial Day weekend and found that all were complying with the 50 percent occupancy order.

"We don't have our blinders on," she said. "We know there are a fair number of people that are coming to our county for leisure travel. Many of them are coming for the day."

That's led some to question whether the county's recent efforts are enough, while others wonder whether anti-tourism messaging is worth it.

Tourism is one of the county's top revenue generators, bringing in about 7.5 million visitors each year. In 2019, travel spending in SLO County reached $2 billion, according to Chuck Davison, president and CEO of Visit SLO Cal, the county's nonprofit marketing organization. That money, Davison said at a May 13 press briefing, translated to $90 million worth of transient occupancy tax revenue for local municipalities.

Now forecasting a $1 billion shortfall in tourism-related revenue in 2020, many of the county's 23,000 employees are currently unemployed. Local lodging facilities, 80 percent of which are independently owned, are largely vacant.

"People working in the tourism industry are your friends, and they are your neighbors," Davison said. "And they, like you, care about this county. And they want to return to work, but they want to do it in ways that are safe for everyone." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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