Mono Seeks Relief From Covid Restrictions As Blame Game Begins: "This is Tearing This Community Apart" Councilman Says

By Jon Klusmire
Special to the Times

Mono County and Mammoth Lakes will make a concerted effort to lobby, pester and persuade state officials from the governor on down that the current regional stay-at-home order should be lifted or altered as soon as possible to avoid massive and possibly long-term economic damage to the town and county.

But the two governments will not “go rogue” as many residents suggested, at a Dec. 23 emergency/special joint meeting with both governments, by unilaterally deciding to openly defy the state coronavirus restrictions and open up businesses and lodging. Nor did the Mammoth Town Council and Mono County Board of Supervisors show any inclination to simply quit enforcing the state-ordered limits on lodging, dining and other businesses. That would have the practical effect of allowing businesses to operate at will, with no threat of sanctions or other locally imposed limitations or citations.

During a virtual meeting on Dec. 23 of both boards the state-mandated closures and ban on “non-essential” travel geared to slowing the spread of COVID-19 drew the ire and annoyance of speakers and elected officials alike. But the alleged lax enforcement of the lodging ban in Bishop and Inyo County was also was cited as a major irritant. Numerous speakers and elected officials said it was obvious that Mammoth visitors were defying the state’s stay-at-home orders and tourist lodging ban by staying in Bishop and then visiting Mammoth and skiing Mammoth Mountain, which remains open during the shutdown.

After hours of public comment, the two boards unanimously endorsed a plan to send letters and detailed local information to the governor, the area’s state Assembly and Senate members, the California Department of Health and other officials asking to have Mono County moved from the Southern California region for COVID-compliance, and asking to have the current stay-at-home orders lifted as soon as possible. The county and town will also work with their respective statewide organizations representing counties, rural counties and small cities in a cooperative effort to seek relief from the stern state restrictions.

The elected officials also will make the case that the economic losses from being shut down over the lucrative Christmas and New Year’s season could decimate Mammoth Lakes’ and Mono County’s business community and lead to long-term turmoil and damage to the community and its residents.

Included in those official communications will be detailed and urgent letters and petitions from the Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce, the Mammoth Lakes Restaurant Association and the Mammoth Lakes Lodging Association.

“The call to action has now become crystal clear: terminate the Regional Stay at Home Order,” states the letter from the two business associations. “Businesses are facing the desperate decision to stay open in violation of the orders or go bankrupt.”

About 160 businesses in Mammoth and Mono County and 546 residents signed the petition asking the elected officials to “advocate” with the governor and state officials to lift the stay at home order when it expires on Dec. 27, said Chamber of Commerce President Ken Brengle. Reopening under the state’s purple tier coronavirus restrictions would be acceptable, since the business community operated safely and successfully under those restraints. The purple tier would allow outdoor dining, lodging and short-term rentals with restrictions and would be generally less onerous than the current stay at home restrictions.

John Morris of the Lodging Association said part of the group’s frustration is that “the stay-at-home order is not working” to reduce coronavirus infections in Mono County or elsewhere. It was also not fair for Mammoth Lakes lodges and short-term rentals to be abiding by the rules, while in Bishop and Inyo County “they are completely ignoring the order,” he said.

Mammoth Lakes Mayor Bill Sauser said he talked with a counterpart in Bishop who told him the city simply did not have the staff and resources to enforce the lodging restrictions, and were leaving such decisions up to each hotel, motel or short-term rental.

At one point, nearly 200 people logged into the meeting. Many speakers lamented that they could not rent their homes or lodging properties, while lodging and Air B&B short-term rentals were available in Bishop and many other California towns allegedly under the same ban on renting tourist accommodations. Also, there is a vibrant “black market” for short-term rentals in Mammoth Lakes which is punishing those who obey the rules, several speakers noted.

More than several residents asked the county and town to just lift the bans and generally disregard the state regulations. However, the attorneys for both the county and town noted rather clearly that local jurisdictions did not have the legal leeway to decide which state laws or regulations to enforce or not enforce. One city in the state did defy the state coronavirus limits and was threatened with being cut off from state and federal funds.

That legal argument guided the two board’s response.

“We don’t have the legal authority to end the shutdown,” said Mono County Supervisor Bob Gardner. He echoed fellow board member John Peters’ analysis that the county would have to get “better numbers and get our cases down” in order to make an effective argument to the state to make Mono County an exception to current regulations. In the last month, Mono County has experienced a steady increase in COVID infections.

Supervisor Fred Stump acknowledged that it was “not fair” that Bishop was allowing tourist lodging, so besides “pushing the state” for relief, “Inyo and Bishop need to step up” enforcement and compliance.

Sauser lamented that the current situation, with lax enforcement and inattention from the state and no enforcement in Bishop could lead to “tearing this community apart.”

Supervisor Stacy Coreless noted that the governor and the state “have listened before” during the pandemic and changed Mono County’s lodging and campground ban early in the year, and also adjusted the formula for imposing pandemic-related restrictions for rural counties.

But the bottom line came from Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz: “We’re at the mercy of the governor at this point. Merry Christmas.”