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Tahoe’s shutdown order expires; region will remain shut down for New Year’s

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/1/2021 By Gregory Thomas
a group of people standing in front of a building: Gondolas at Heavenly Village continue to transport skiers and snowboarders up the mountain in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Thursday, December 10, 2020. Vacation travel to Lake Tahoe will be banned for at least three weeks starting Friday due to a regional rise in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. © Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Gondolas at Heavenly Village continue to transport skiers and snowboarders up the mountain in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Thursday, December 10, 2020. Vacation travel to Lake Tahoe will be banned for at least three weeks starting Friday due to a regional rise in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

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With only hours remaining on the state's three-week shutdown order for the Greater Sacramento region, officials across Lake Tahoe say they haven't heard from the state about a course of action to potentially loosen restrictions on local businesses, hotels and restaurants and reopen the region to travelers.

As of Thursday morning, Greater Sacramento, which encompasses 13 counties including the Tahoe area, registered 17.4% availability in its hospital intensive-care units and had cleared the state's 15% threshold for eight straight days. The progress signals to many that an emergence from the state's regional stay-at-home order, triggered Dec. 11, could be close.

However, city and county officials say they haven't received clear instructions or guidance on how to proceed once the shutdown order expires at 11:59 p.m., one minute before New Year's Day, and anticipate that shutdown will remain in effect.

"I expect us to stay exactly where we're at" come Friday, said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace.

Rising above the 15% availability threshold means a region is eligible to come out of stay-at-home. But officials aren’t sure when they might hear from the state.

"There's no clear answer about what our heads-up period might look like" for moving out of the stay-at-home framework, said Carla Hass, communications director for El Dorado County, which includes South Lake Tahoe. "We simply don't know."

Officials in North Tahoe were similarly puzzled. When asked whether they anticipated hearing from the state before New Year’s Day, Truckee town council member Dave Polivy replied, "I wish I had a better answer, but no."

Adding to the frustration among Tahoe officials is the fact that they have observed travelers coming to the lake the past three weeks in defiance of the shutdown order. Ski resorts and Nevada casinos have remained open during the pandemic, attracting out-of-towners. Locals have reported spotting out-of-state license plates around town and business owners have been processing credit cards with billing addresses spanning the country.

"A good portion of people coming here don't seem to be taking this seriously," said Polivy, who owns Tahoe Mountain Sports rental shop in Truckee. "You wouldn't even know Covid is going on."

While the Greater Sacramento region appears to have made progress on controlling the local spread of the coronavirus, ICU capacity in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley regions remained at 0% as of Thursday morning and upward of 30,000 COVID cases were being reported each day statewide. The Bay Area registered 7.5% capacity in its ICUs.

According to the state's framework, if a region put on lockdown climbs above the 15% threshold by the end of an initial three-week shutdown period, it can be moved back to the colored "tier" system of restrictions enacted earlier in the year. However, that move is subject to the state's discretion, which is informed by four-week projections of COVID case counts statewide. If cases appear to be on the rise — as is expected in the weeks following the Christmas and New Year's holidays due to travel activity and family gatherings — the state could decide to keep a stay-at-home order in place.

Despite the progress made in Greater Sacramento, the first region eligible to bounce back from lockdown, it appears the area will remain under stay-at-home for the foreseeable future.

The California Department of Public Health did not reply to emailed questions about the region before press time Thursday morning. In his weekly address on Tuesday, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said that "if these projections are above that 15% at any day or time then the region is released from the order."

Mayor Wallace, of South Lake Tahoe, expressed frustration about what she calls mixed messages from Gov. Gavin Newsom about the shutdown framework. The state has begun posting four-week projection notes for Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions on its coronavirus information website. "Demand exceeds capacity," they read. But the state hasn't posted projection figures or notes for the Bay Area or Greater Sacramento, leaving officials unsure about what message to communicate to their pandemic-fatigued communities.

“How do we tell our businesses and our folks that live here, ‘You did all the right things and our numbers are looking better, but yet you still have to stay home?’” Wallace said. "People expect government to be consistent, predictable and fair. This has been anything but that."

South Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for New Year’s Eve, drawing tens of thousands of visitors during a normal year. But hotels on the California side of the lake remain unavailable to all but essential workers and many restaurants and businesses are closed. The three-day SnowGlobe Music Festival, a major end-of-year event, was canceled.

However, restrictions are much more lax in Nevada — casinos, hotels and dine-in restaurants remain open — and lake officials expect people to gather and celebrate on the state border. It sends a confusing message to both locals and visitors, Wallace said. “All you have to do is step across the state line and the rules are completely different,” she said.

Whether the Greater Sacramento region would be able to pull out of stay-at-home in January — assuming ICU availability remains above 15% — is unknown but unlikely, said Dr. Rick Johnson, Nevada County's interim public health officer.

"I'd be pessimistic about the possibility,” he said. "A lot of people are assuming, 'We're good to go, right?' That's very unlikely."

Still, Tahoe continues to receive travelers and get inquiries from people who want to go ski there.

"With more snow in the forecast, everyone is itching to get up here," Johnson said. "But it's impossible to plan ahead right now."

Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle's editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: gthomas@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @GregRThomas

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