Pandemic lessons: What Tahoe officials are learning from COVID-19
Special to the Tribune
When the pandemic began to take hold in the U.S. six months ago, it was hard to imagine the implications this would have for the communities surrounding the Jewel of the Sierra.
In the ensuing months, we’ve seen our healthcare workers around the lake go above and beyond the call of duty. We’ve watched businesses close, pivot and (sometimes) reopen, while employees adapt to working from home or, worse, not working at all. We’ve seen restaurants and bars struggling to keep up with ever-changing guidelines and diminished capacity. We’ve felt angered and confused as our public lands are littered with trash as our land managers are stretched thin. We’ve fretted over school reopenings and virtual learning. We’ve pondered questions of overtourism and the blessing and curse that is a visitor-dependent economy.
We may not be through with the devastation caused by COVID-19, but there are undoubtedly lessons we can glean from these chaotic months thus far — and Lake Tahoe’s leaders and organizations agree.
“A lot of the issues that we’ve faced pre-pandemic were just exacerbated during — the economy and tourism, transportation and housing, fire risk — all of the things that folks who live here worry about,” said Claudia Andersen, CEO of Parasol Tahoe Community Foundation. “Since in this current state of the world we are all learning to pivot and do things differently, maybe it’s an opportunity to look at our chronic problems differently.”
As an organization that promotes nonprofit collaboration, Andersen has seen more than ever the importance of partnerships during the pandemic — a sentiment echoed by the Jeff Cowen, public information officer at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
“The basin-wide partnerships we have been building for decades are paying huge dividends in recreation site management, sharing resources, approaches, and information,” said Cowen.
As California and Nevada prepared to reopen for travel, a steering committee comprised of the TRPA, agencies from around the lake and regional tourism boards met multiple times a week to address issues like overcrowding, litter and parking.
“Tourism is out of balance with the finite resources and with the infrastructure we have. It is a problem that we’ve been working on,” said Cowen, pointing to the SR 89 Corridor Plan, which proposes parking reservations and reserved public transit as a solution to dispersing visitation at high-pressure areas along the highway like Emerald Bay.
It’s a balancing act that residents of Incline Village are familiar with, according to Tim Callicrate, chairman of the Incline Village General Improvement District Board of Trustees. With COVID-19 necessitating social distancing, IVGID took extra steps to ensure the private community beaches were reserved for residents and their guests.
“This summer, despite all of the other craziness, the residents of Incline and their guests have had a much more enjoyable experience at our beaches because of the restrictions that have always been there, but through the years have been taken advantage of by some individuals,” explained Callicrate.
“We are up here in an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism … we have to find that fine line of how much of what we do we gear towards tourists and what we need to do for our full-time, year-round residents. We’ve been coming up to that critical point in Incline and Crystal Bay over the last 10 years; COVID just really amped it up.”
That dependency on tourism has gone too far, to the detriment of our communities, asserts Heidi Hill Drum, CEO of Tahoe Prosperity Center, and the pandemic has only made that clearer.
“We need to diversify our economy so it provides year-round, house-buying jobs,” said Hill Drum. “What we need to learn is how to become more resilient so that our families and residents that are struggling with two or three tourism jobs don’t need those tourism jobs in the future because they have one job that sustains them or only one family member works in the tourism industry and the other works in a non-tourism industry. That supports our local residents.”
Using data from TPC’s Measuring for Prosperity reports, Hill Drum points to a jump from 42% of the basin’s jobs stemming from tourism in 2017 to 62% in just three years. And according to the soon-to-be-released 2020 report, based on regional data, an estimated 5,500 – 7,500 local jobs were laid off between February and April — roughly the same number of jobs lost during the entire Great Recession in the basin.
Since 2007, local-serving businesses, which used to be the second largest industry in Tahoe, have dropped to fourth.
“We became much more tourism dependent in those 10 years, which has put us in this vulnerable position with the pandemic. The pandemic could be a wildfire. It could be Echo Summit closing for two weeks for road repair,” said Hill Drum. “There are a whole set of external factors beyond our control, and we need to take this time to really think creatively about how we pivot our business and serve more full-time residents and not just rely on tourism.”
For Tahoe Chamber CEO Steve Teshara, the uncertainty of the future caused by COVID-19 has underscored the importance of long-term planning for local businesses.
“It’s great to have these emergency government programs, but the world is a very fickle place these days. Things could happen, whether it be weather, fire, or lots of different scenarios,” notes Teshara.
Teshara points to the newly formed The Resilience Fund – Sierra, in partnership with Sierra Business Council, which not only provides loans to Tahoe businesses, but coaching to help businesses better position themselves for the future.
“The challenges are going to continue in one form on another,” says Teshara. “A lot of businesses are living on the edge — payroll to payroll, rent to rent — and this encourages people to think in terms of being sturdier in your positioning, given what may come.”
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