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LOCAL NEWS: Coastal communities shut down as spring break tourists swarm

LOCAL NEWS: Coastal communities shut down as spring break tourists swarm

by Joanne Rideout

Coastal officials in Oregon and Washington sprang into action this weekend, responding to an influx of spring break visitors on beaches and other recreation areas during a state of emergency over COVID-19. Joanne Rideout reports.

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Coastal cities quickly realized on Saturday that they were inundated with visitors, evidently inspired by the nice weather to ignore Governor Kate Brown’s COVID-19 recommendation Friday to “stay home and stay healthy.”

The city of Warrenton acted first. At 5 pm Saturday, Mayor Henry Balensifer and the city commission declared a state of emergency and effectively shut down the city to visitors staying in local hotels, homestay lodging and campgrounds, giving them 24 hours to leave.

Balensifer received hundreds of emails, messages and phone calls on Saturday, from residents fearful of careless behavior from spring break visitors disregarding social distancing.

Before the meeting Saturday, Balensifer addressed citizens in a live video on Facebook.

Henry Balensifer: “The folks who came down here for spring break, the people who are just here for short term, those folks, they need to go. Everyone locally is for the most part, taking it seriously. These folks that are coming down, like I say, when you go on vacation your brain turns off, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Nobody’s exercising any semblance, these vacationers, of common sense.”

Astoria’s city council followed suit Sunday at noon, voting to ban vacation and leisure travelers from hotels and short term lodging rentals during the state of emergency which the city declared last week.

A short time later, the Clatsop County Commission held an emergency meeting, and acting in concert with the county health authority, and closed down all lodging by noon Monday, also ordering pools and spas to close.

The Clatsop County, Warrenton and Astoria rulings contained exceptions to allow people in certain specialized situations to stay. But vacationers were ordered to leave.

The county ruling applies to all unincorporated areas, and all cities that have not already declared a state of emergency.

However, the county ruling did not apply to the city of Seaside, which was also seeing a huge influx of tourists. The city council there met Saturday night, but voted only to declare an emergency and did not immediately place limits on businesses or recreation areas. Seaside later followed Warrenton, Astoria and the county, and issued an order similar to those enacted by other area municipalities.

In the Clatsop County Commission’s emergency meeting, councilor Mark Kujala was critical of Governor Kate Brown:

Mark Kujala: “The message to Governor Brown is you’re failing your coastal communities by not issuing an order to stay home. This is a pandemic and requires state action. And it shouldn’t be local governments and counties having to act one by one. There should be a shelter in place just as other states have done. It should be instituted – it should be done today.”

Within hours, the Cannon Beach city council also ordered all visitors within the City’s jurisdiction to evacuate within 24 hours.

In Tillamook County, the County Commission made a similar decision. The county also closed boat launches to all but commercial fishermen, along with access points and parking lots, extending no parking zones in public right of way areas.

Tillamook Emergency Manager Gordon McCraw said the county’s decision was the right one.

Gordon McCraw: “I mean it was bumper to bumper traffic on 26 coming to the coast. I drove up highway 101 to the north yesterday and every viewpoint on Neahkahnie Mountain was totally packed, and when we got down to Short Sands Beach I’ve never seen so much, or so many tourists parked in that area as it was that day.”

Oregon cities and counties could not close ocean beaches within their jurisdictions because beaches are under state control.

On the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington, the city of Long Beach voted Saturday to block beach entrances in the city limits effective Sunday morning.

The Pacific County Department of Health issued an order Sunday closing all beach approaches, and hospitality lodging countywide, with certain caveats to exempt long term residents and employees who need lodging for their work.

Officials said failure to comply with any of these orders could result in arrest.

In Astoria, I’m Joanne Rideout reporting. Correspondent Kathleen Morgain also contributed to this story.