On the first day of spring break, fellow Oregonians and visitors from out of state thought there would be adequate space for social distancing at the coast.
Vast hiking trails. Wide, sandy beaches. And somewhat unfortunately, spectacular weather. The perfect place to get away from the chaos and lessen the chance of exposure to COVID-19.
One problem: thousands of people had the same idea. Local Tillamook Coasters uploaded videos and photos from popular tourist locations showing crowded beaches and parking lots so full that people opted to park alongside the road.
This comes only a day after Gov. Kate Brown announced the state’s new policy of “Stay Home, Stay Healthy.” While the policy is somewhat vague, it does emphasize Oregonians and visitors should only leave home for essential reasons. The wave of coastal visitors is prompting local leaders to act.
“As mayor of the City of Tillamook it’s my job to be the voice of my constituents. And that usually means encouraging people from all around the world to visit our community,” Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber said on a social media video broadcast Saturday, March 21.
“Our community is small and our resources are few. Our hospital has a fraction of supplies and beds of those in the Portland metro area. Our community is not equipped to handle a significant health crisis with tens of thousands of additional people,” Weber said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is not just an opportunity for a traveling vacation, it is a threat to our lives … if you are visiting for non-essential reasons, pack your bags and leave immediately.”
Locals on the Tillamook Coast took to social media encouraging other locals to petition the governor for assistance with the problem, citing the influx in visitors that is increasing the risk of coronavirus exposure.
“They’re very upset; I have been fielding calls literally all day long,” State Sen. Betsy Johnson said. “I’m trying to respond but the volume of calls is getting to the point where I’m overwhelmed. The gist of the calls are all the same: we as responsible Oregonians heeded the shutdown at great personal and financial detriments to ourselves.”
“After Oregonians took these very painful steps, they have been inundated with visitors largely from Washington, and to a lesser degree from California, and a goodly number from Portland,” Johnson said. “The argument from the Portland people is if Ted Wheeler is going to shutdown Portland, we might as well shelter in place in some nice, beautiful spot next to the ocean. The problem is they’re gathering to get takeout food, sitting at picnic tables, eating, their kids are playing.”
Local photos shared online also included a full parking lot at Cape Kiwanda. Right next door, the very popular Pelican Pub chose to take action.
“Based upon the most recent information, we believe the right thing to do is to close all Pelican Brewing locations immediately to help control the spread of COVID-19 and protect our employees, our community, and the greater good,” Pelican wrote on social media Saturday. “If everyone does their part, this will be more likely to be short-lived and that is the reason we’ve made this decision—we want to be part of the solution.”
Visit Tillamook Coast Director Nan Devlin also took to social media encouraging people to heed the warnings from health officials.
“Oregon’s north coast is inundated with visitors from several states,” Devlin wrote. “Normally we would welcome and invite that but these are not normal times. Please respect the health of our community and safety of our public places. Practice social distancing now. Visit us when it is safe to do so. We will welcome you with open arms.”
Not only has the vast number of people caused angst amongst locals, but also where visitors are coming from is an issue.
“They feel they are vulnerable and exposed and at risk by visitors that are coming from some place else that has had a high mortality rate, that would be the state of Washington, and descending on coastal resources,” Johnson said. “And the places that would normally accommodate the tourist, that are now not open, is changing the flow of where the tourists are going and what they’re doing. I’m told by constituents that pictures of Highway 26 coming to the beach was literally car-to-car.”
Visitors’ medical needs and shopping habits are only adding to the concern.
“If there is a run of the virus and people are hospitalized, our little healthcare system would be swamped,” Johnson said. “There has already been a significant run on commodities … with visitors coming and continuing to shop in grocery stores that are depleted of commodities, the visitors are taking up resources that the locals depend on in order to stay in their homes.”
Johnson called for visitors and locals to practice responsible behavior.
“As Americans, we value the ability to travel within our own country. I think we are approaching a point if we cannot slow the spread of this virus by responsible behavior that we’re going to have to look at other things,” Johnson said. “I very strongly believe that a blanket ‘shelter in place’ forced order is going to put an enormously burden on our police and other public safety officials, but we are going to have to do something to make the beach less hospitable.”
The Tillamook County Board of Commissioners reportedly contacted the governor's office about the deluge of visitors, emailing photos and sharing local concerns. An emergency board meeting was slated for Sunday morning.