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Coast Lodging Struggles to Stay Positive

Saying tourism has taken a direct hit from COVID-19 is the understatement of the year. Starting on March 25, 2020, tourism in California, certainly on the Mendocino Coast, effectively vanished.

And while motels in Ukiah and elsewhere along the US 101 corridor still bustle, a little anyway, with business travelers, the inns, motels and resorts of the Mendocino Coast are silent as the grave.

Add to that the coast's far greater dependency on tourism — no Costco or other large scale retail sector, no manufacturing to speak of with lumber mills long closed and fishing staggered by the restaurant shutdown — and COVID-19 economics start to look very different depending on which side of the hill you are on.

The crown jewel of coast lodging is the Little River Inn, a five-generation family operation with the lore to go with it and its own custom built golf course. The grounds, buildings, location and casually spectacular hospitality are why folks like Merle Haggard have dropped by repeatedly over the years.

Callie Dym is sixth generation on the Mendocino Coast and has been owner-operator of the Little River Inn for the past 14 years. She started out polishing glasses and getting gum off the bottoms of the bar tables there when she was five or so.

Dym knows coast lodging like few others, and she is not panicking. She knows the good things the Mendocino Coast has to offer and that the demand for them is always there.

But during a conversation this week, she also did not downplay the seriousness of the situation or the unprecedented challenges it presents to the local industry.

"I think you're going to be hugely impacted in the short term if you are dependent at all on this industry," she said.

Dym has long been active in industry/government relations and she is upbeat about the communications with local officials so far. The one slowdown in everyone's plans, she said, is lack of COVID-19 testing capability, since tests, test results and case numbers are the bottom line for the state's reopening guidelines.

"Everything but the testing is OK," she said, although recent news that Mendocino County will get a mobile lab in Ukiah to speed results is encouraging, she added.

One bright spot, she said, is the way local lodging owners have come together, especially over the past month as the seriousness of the situation became clear. Both in communicating with county government and working with each other to draw up plans for reopening, the usually independent-minded group of proprietors is working together like it hasn't before. Dym said the main group of proprietors has grown from 20 participants to 50 and web based meetings are wll attended.

Both Dym and Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce President Sharon Davis emphasized the need for prompt government action, both in making and approving procedures for reopening and addressing the unfolding economic damage with financial assistance. 

Dym said the first round of assistance to small business didn't have much of an overall effect, and that losing "shoulder season" — the ramp-up between the doldrums of January and February and the summer season — has devastated cash flows.

The Little River Inn has furloughed nearly all its 110 employees, she said, allowing them to keep benefits and accumulate leave and sick time. She said as far as she knows, all plan to return when they can.

But no one is even making a guess about the "when." Some types of businesses are nearing the approvals needed to reopen. Motels and inns are not among them. Restaurants can do curbside business. Lodging establishments can't. Lodging isn’t expected to open until Governor Newsom’s still unscheduled “Stage 3.”

The Chamber of Commerce's Davis said proprietors are working together to develop practical ways of meeting probable state guidelines. It is likely that guests will have to wear masks when they return, she said, so establishments are putting together “care baskets” that would include all required gear.

Most of all, Davis said, the lodging industry needs direct help to keep proprietors from going under, and technical assistance in making whatever progeams are offered work. She, like Dym, complimented county government on the efforts it is making to understand and respond to the business community so far. But, she allowed, the process is a challenge, and the clock is ticking.

Looking at big-picture, long-term assessments of COVID-19's effect on tourism is probably not even a good idea right now for people depending on it for a living. Estimates like 50 percent of jobs lost industry-wide are floating around. But the only thing people really agree on, other than that things are bad, is that so much is unknown.

Some of the responses so far seem like they might hold promise for the post-COVID future, like LoveLocalMendo, a countywide online marketplace. ( But for now, urgency is focused on immediate aid to make sure the establishments that have been forced to close for the public's health, are around to enjoy it.

One Comment

  1. Juke box junkie May 23, 2020

    Wish they’d bring back that jukebox with the paddle wheel boat.

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