COVID has cancelled many people’s vacation plans, so more Bay Areans might be turning to camping. But can we go? Is it safe? And how can we do it responsibly?
There’s a lot to be learned about how we’re spending our time these days by looking at the sales revenue of an outdoor store like Sports Basement. General manager Tom Purcell says that no one is coming in to buy team sports equipment anymore. Day hiking equipment sales are doing well, though. Bicycling sales are through the roof. “Bikes are the new toilet paper,” he tells me. And recently, “Camping is really starting to take off.” He expects that to continue as shelter in place restrictions are lifted.
He sees camping as a pretty good activity to do in the time of social distancing. “When people are in their own little unit and they're cooking for themselves and with their family and friends in a campsite, they probably feel pretty safe.”
They might feel safe, but are they? And even if it’s safe for an individual family, is going camping this summer the responsible thing to do in terms for the good of public health?
Professor of Epidemiology at UC San Francisco Dr. George Rutherford says yes. “There's no reason not to go camping.”
“Let’s just say it's a family of four and instead of being in the house or being in the car, they're in a tent. What's the difference? It's fine. Now if you start bringing forty five unrelated people together, that's another issue.”
Rutherford says to camp with your household. And if you camp with people outside your household - say it with me now - stay six feet apart, wear a mask, and don’t go if you’re sick.
“It's basically the same kinds of advice that we give for everything else.”
Oh and also…
“Don't go to choir camp.” It sounds like he’s joking but he’s not. “Singing is a risk factor.”
Group singing aside, your own family in your own little tent out in nature is relatively safe. What about when nature calls? It seems like bathrooms would be one of the most dangerous transmission points.
But Rutherford says the problem is not with the bathrooms. “The problem is with you having lots of people in the bathroom at the same time.”
Coronavirus is mostly transmitted through breathing, sneezing, or coughing. So there is a possibility that someone directly sneezes on a surface that you then touch. Rutherford suggests bringing some wipes to clean off those surfaces first.
And he stresses, getting out in nature is good for us, physically and mentally. “To deny that for a whole summer based on theoretical concerns about transmission,” he says, is just not necessary.
So it’s relatively safe to go camping but where?
Currently, the message from the California Department of Public Health is still to recreate close home. Travelling for camping is not considered an essential activity. The state recommends checking with your county’s health department for specific guidelines. But as counties quickly begin to “reopen” from shetler in place orders, public lands and campgrounds are reopening, too.
Nancy Parachini, Deputy Director for Public Services for the National Forests of California, says that campgrounds are reopening on a case by case basis. It’s best to check online if you’re wondering about a particular place. And if you’re planning on camping outside of a campground, “Please be prepared to pack out your trash and this might mean human waste if appropriate.”
The other thing to keep in mind, Parachini says, is trail etiquette. It’s one thing to camp on your own but if you want to hike, you may end up on a narrow trail where it will be harder to social distance. Hikers will have to take care to navigate safely around each other and maybe even step off the trail to stay six feet apart. But watch out for dangers like poison oak.
“Maybe find another location or backtrack. Communicate. It just maybe requires a little bit more patience.”
I wondered if Parachini was concerned that Covid would send more people camping this summer, resulting in more trash or forest fires?
“I wouldn't say we're worried about it,” she tells me. “We're excited for people to come visit. We're also happy and interested in helping them learn how to do it safely, in a COVID-19 environment or not.”
I’m still left with the question of: is travelling to camp this summer the responsible thing to do? Me with my city germs driving across the state, not to mention stopping to buy an ice cream sandwich along the way?
Chris Lizza, the owner of the Mono Market in Lee Vining, California took a break from work to talk to me. His grocery store is right at the eastern entrance to Yosemite and gets visitors from the Bay Area, Reno, and L.A. Visitors who could spread Covid to this town of about two hundred people. Mono County has only had a small number of Covid cases so far and Lizza says he’d like to keep it that way. “In a small town like this, the concern is having our medical Facilities be overwhelmed.”
Lizza says his store gets visitors from places that have different health rules than Mono County which requires you to wear a mask inside. It’s been difficult getting customers to adhere to these policies.
“I have many signs out front; I have free masks out front; and people walk right by everything into my store, as if it was ‘situation normal.’ I have to play the mask police which I have no desire to do.”
Lizza got a small business loan which has helped him make payroll, so his biggest concern now is his staff getting sick.
He says if that happened, he would shut down the store for two weeks to clean it out and make sure the other employees who were exposed didn’t also get sick. “Then the community would be without its community market for two weeks and that that's really my biggest fear,” he says. Not to mention the impact on the sick employee.
As long as you have a mask, Lizza says he’ll be happy to welcome you into his store, even if you travelled there all the way from the Bay Area. He recognizes people’s desire to travel into nature right now.
“It's nice to get out. And I get out almost every day and do something. As long as you respect the rules of the county and, and and the needs of my employees then I encourage coming up to recreate.”