By Joanne S. Marchetta
Ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions abound in this pandemic. Add time to the list of contradictions swirling around us. Morning and night sometimes seem a week apart. The first month of shelter-in-place dripped by for many of us. The second month was gone before we knew it. And now summer is fast approaching. We welcome the season because in ordinary times it can elevate our well-being, but these are not ordinary times. With most of the attention and intensity now on reopening, the question that hangs in the balance is, are we ready? Is it the right time? Can we do it in a way that doesn’t risk lives? As stay-at-home orders relax, public lands and recreation managers basin-wide are preparing for the inevitability of outdoor gathering.
Part of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (TRPA) mandate is to focus on the quality of outdoor recreation. We normally convene with recreation area managers about improving access, protecting resources, and connecting trails and transit, which are challenges in their own right. This year there is a whole new set of challenges involving consistent and coordinated management and messaging regionally about what recreation sites are open and under what guidelines. TRPA is convening a Basin-wide recreation response team to bring together nearly 50 agencies and organizations to coordinate site readiness, operational protocols, and public information. Top priority is the health of employees, residents, and visitors, and all coordination is in consultation with local and state health officers.
Lake Tahoe’s beaches and backcountry areas will open this summer, but not in the fully unrestricted ways the public has come to expect. Just like hotels and restaurants, the question is how will they open? And how will we avoid the unintended consequences of inconsistency? If one area opens while others remain closed, overcrowding may force a shutdown or further restrictions. The crowds go to another area, and the process could repeat itself creating what we don’t want — ambiguity, inconsistency, uncertainty. As the summer passes, individuals and public agencies alike must continually ask, are we are doing the right things and are we doing the same things? As restrictions on business and travel begin to ease, Lake Tahoe’s strength and well-being will lie in us acting together for the common good.
Boating was only the first of the difficult coordination issues to tackle. TRPA worked through April and May to get broad and consistent support for a phased opening of the lake to boating. TRPA this year paused its annual distribution of Lake Tahoe aquatic invasive species (AIS) boat decals to give time for numerous private marinas, public boat ramp managers, and state and local agencies to agree on a plan to open the lake in phases. In the initial phase, only boats that have a Lake Tahoe AIS inspection seal from their last haul out can launch. With travel restrictions still in place around much of the lake, no vessels from outside the region requiring an AIS inspection can launch until a later phase, thus giving additional time to avoid large gathering and for the disease curve to continue to flatten.
Hundreds of boaters we consulted were ready to get out there on a nearly empty lake, perfect for social distancing. The invisible barrier was the need for coordination for the common good. Foremost, public health officials needed assurance that distancing and sanitizing practices could be followed at launch facilities. With about 8,000 “Tahoe Only” boats stored regionally, decision makers also had to assume most of them would hit the lake in a compact period of time. And, until very recently, marinas and launches were non-essential operations and most beaches and boat recreation areas were closed.
Business will not be “as usual” in a life-threatening pandemic. The coordinated action on summer boating was only the first coordinated action needed around recreation as we ready for a spectacular and more organized season in the Tahoe outdoors.
Opening Lake Tahoe with new-normal COVID precautions at every location will take patience, courteousness, and positive attitudes. The team at takecaretahoe.org has helped set the tone by shifting their crowd-pleasing environmental illustrations to cautionary COVID messages. “Air Five,” and “Go Big on Social Distancing” are among the signs, memes, and ads available to everyone to provide consistent assurances to residents and visitors alike. Sustainable recreation requires new approaches. Distancing, face covering, washing hands regularly, and staying away from crowded areas all need to become native habits to sustain our early success in slowing the disease.
TRPA continues to be grateful for front-line healthcare, public safety, and essential workers who are putting their health at risk to keep our communities going. We also thank the many private marinas, boat facilities, and public boat ramp operators that have stayed true to the partnership formed many years ago around aquatic invasive species. The health of our lake and communities are more intertwined than ever.
Joanne S. Marchetta is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency