Can you travel in California? Official signals conflict

The generally light surf at Leadbetter Beach makes it one of Santa Barbara's more popular venues for beginning surfers. <span class="copyright">(Stephanie Diani)</span>
The generally light surf at Leadbetter Beach makes it one of Santa Barbara’s more popular venues for beginning surfers. (Stephanie Diani)

Californians, are you now free to move about the state?

It seems you are, if you judge by the flurry of hotel, casino and park openings in California, Las Vegas and the rest of the West in recent days, including a big burst of reopenings Friday with Disneyland to follow on July 17.

At popular destinations like Santa Barbara, Napa Valley and Los Angeles, tourism boosters are eagerly inviting the masses back and treating the state’s stay-at-home order as history.

But that’s not what public health officials are saying, at least not yet.

“We are waiting to see how the State Health Officer changes her order,” wrote a spokesman for Los Angeles County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer in an email Thursday.

As of Friday morning, that change hadn’t come yet, and the state Public Health Office was giving this advice on the state website:

“You can travel for urgent matters or if such travel is essential to your permitted work. Even though businesses around the state are opening up, avoid travelling long distances for vacations or pleasure as much as possible. This is to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Do not travel if you are sick, or if someone in your household has had coronavirus in the last two weeks. Do not travel with someone who is sick.”

Asked Thursday if leisure travel by L.A. County residents is forbidden, discouraged, permitted or not, the L.A. County Public Health Department spokesman avoided a direct response and said that because the state has decided to let hotels reopen for tourism, a change in the state health officer’s order is likely.

Once that happens, the county’s Public Health Department could decide to more directly give its OK to vacations or could let stand its existing order, which requires distancing and face coverings but doesn’t specifically address travel.

With such uncertainty lingering, consumers can’t be blamed for wondering how much risk might await on the road. The statewide coronavirus count passed 4,900 deaths and 143,000 cases on Thursday.

From local to global levels, tensions have been building for months between health officials eager to minimize pandemic exposure and public officials eager to rekindle the sputtering economy. In Orange County, public health officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned June 8 amid widespread opposition to her May order that residents wear face masks in public. (The order was recently rescinded.)

Meanwhile, hotels and tourism agencies in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, South Lake Tahoe, Napa-Sonoma wine country and many other popular destinations are announcing openings and cranking up their marketing efforts.

In many respects, this uncertain atmosphere leaves people to decide for themselves. Since L.A. residents make their homes amid the state’s greatest concentration of pandemic cases and deaths, the travel decisions they make and the precautions they take will have substantial consequences.

In the four-part reopening roadmap set out by Gov. Gavin Newsom, most of California’s counties are at Stage 2 or 3. At Stage 3, the state says, awkwardly, that travel is permissible for “healthcare, food, Stages 1-3 work and local or activities shopping related to open sectors.”

Resuming leisure travel is part of the fourth stage, the “end of the stay-at-home order.”

The state’s ranking public health officials, public health officer and director Sonia Y. Angell, has not updated the May 7 order in which she wrote that to minimize risks of further contagion, “Californians should not travel significant distances and should stay close to home.”

Many Las Vegas casinos reopened June 4 with masks required for workers but not guests, a move that attracted legions of bare-faced visitors. Yosemite began a gradual reopening Thursday.

Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive of Visit California, said in a statement Tuesday that “counties will reopen on different timelines across California. It’s important that travelers check current conditions in the community they plan to visit.”

But not every tourist attraction has joined the rush. Many Southern California museums have said they’re not ready to open their doors, and the L.A. Zoo sent out a release Thursday to say it’s still closed until further notice.

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