The tourists were told to stay away.
Officials closed the visitor centers at the popular Joshua Tree National Park, in California’s Coachella Valley, on March 17 in an effort to curb tourist entries due to fears of the coronavirus spreading. Four days later, on March 21, they went further, shuttering campgrounds and paved roads indefinitely.
But the tourists didn’t listen, and neighbors are mad.
Hikers and bicyclists — traveling solo or with members of their households — were and are still welcome. But displaced overnight visitors were encouraged to move to public camping areas next to the park or to local RV parks. Those camping in the park were given until noon on March 21 to clear out, and gates to the paved roads were closed by early afternoon.
But hikers didn’t exit the area, local homeowner Brian Rennie told the Palm Springs Desert Sun, they just got creative about where to park their cars. Hundreds of cars lined his street, near Joshua Tree’s main entrance, he said, and took liberties with his lawn.
“I’ve had to patrol my property for the last two days,” Rennie said. After patrolling all day on Saturday, he went out to investigate some lights in his driveway at 10 p.m. and found a couple with their sleeping bags out, attempting to set up camp in his front yard. “I told them they had to go.”
San Diego resident Bryant Wei, a tennis instructor who is finding it hard to continue working as long as social distancing restrictions are in place, seized upon his free time as an opportunity to visit the national park for the first time. He told the Desert Sun he has no plans to leave soon; he hopes to stay for a month and calls it the desert trip he’s been dreaming of.
“It’s awesome out here,” Wei said. “I did some climbing earlier and I’ve been able to ride my bike like 50 miles over the last day or two.”
Though Joshua Tree saw fewer visitors after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered California residents to shelter in place last Thursday, the still high-volume could become overwhelming for the park’s limited public health infrastructure.
Joshua Tree continues to be swarmed — as evidenced by a steady stream of new photos visitors post on social media — in part because city folks from the Los Angeles area are fleeing to area vacation homes. The Los Angeles Times reports that there are 1,160 short-term rentals around Joshua Tree — which would usually be occupied for just a weekend at this time of year — that are being snatched up for weeks and months at a time.
Property managers there told the LA Times there that the first two questions asked by prospective renters are: “Do you have anything available for several weeks or longer?” and “Do you have internet access?”
As of March 23, there were 17 cases of COVID-19 in San Bernardino county, where Joshua Tree is located, with no fatalities.
Other vacation towns in California that have restricted outsiders’ movement to prevent crowds include Mammoth Lakes, a ski town about 300 miles north of Los Angeles whose tourism board this week told nonresidents to keep out.
“As a small, remote mountain community, our healthcare facilities lack the capacity to handle a widespread outbreak of COVID-19,” Mammoth Lakes’ tourism board said in a statement. Last Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also forbade residents from moving to or from vacation homes outside of the city.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service advises sticking to photos and videos that can be accessed online for those who want a Joshua Tree fix.
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