“Bishop’s dead,” observed Karen Schwartz, owner of the Sage to Summit climbing store and adjacent gym, as she arrived there on her bike Friday morning. And that’s a good thing: “There’s a few cars” on the street, she said, “but the message is out.”
Last weekend was a big spring weekend in Bishop, California, with 200-300 cars parked on the road by the major bouldering areas, while the sport-climbing area of nearby Owens River Gorge was “packed,” according to one observer. Crowds are to be expected for a busy spring weekend, but last weekend Bishop became emblematic of what small towns with limited facilities and many visitors have faced during the time of spreading COVID-19.
Stephen Muchovej, city council member and a climber, says: “What was really concerning was when a lot of schools started shutting down. Bishop is a world-class climbing destination, and some of the busiest times that we have are typically the major holidays.” One such time is spring break. “College students or other people who get to have a spring break typically come out here. [But] usually colleges let out in staggered weeks.”
This time, instead of releasing students over a period of a month, March into April, educational institutions closed at similar times.
“A lot of people seemed to just run for the hills … And they weren’t really taking into account that the reason those hills are appealing is they are sparsely populated. We don’t have the same level of resources that, say, a big city does. Our hospital has 24 beds, and it’s the only hospital for over 50 miles. Mammoth Lakes hospital has 17 beds. Those are the only two hospitals for 150 miles.”
The town, he says, saw “an alarming uptick in climbers coming out here when really they should have been staying home. Our little town is also not immune to the panic buying that’s been going around the nation. And so a lot of our stores are empty of a lot of products. It’s put an unnecessary extra strain on an already stressful situation.”
That trend, however, may have reversed. Schwartz says understanding sank in slowly. Her gym was packed Thursday night, March 12, and on Saturday she wondered if she should close it. “But it took me to Monday to say, ‘I gotta close my business,’” she says.
On Tuesday, March 17, Dave McAllister, a Denver resident but 20-year visitor to Bishop, posted an influential article on his blog, Thundercling, showing an endless row of parked cars and quoting locals’ pleas that visitors dissipate. The story was widely shared and even picked up by the Associated Press.
Titled “The Pandemic Comes to Bishop: A Small Community Struggles Beneath the Weight of COVID-19,” it read: “While every gym in America took down their shingle and schools shuttered to keep their neighbors safe, a disappointing throng of climbers used the public health crisis to plan a road trip. Bishop locals pointed to around 300 cars ‘parked’ on Chalk Bluff Road, at the mouth of the Happy Boulders, last weekend.” A local runner observed “at least 30” vans parked along her regular route, where five would be normal.
Among other significant elements, on Wednesday Moab, Utah, closed up to camping and visitors. The Access Fund and the American Alpine Club issued statements asking for climbers to refrain from travel. Both advocacy organizations referenced gateway communities such as Bishop and Slade, Kentucky, among others.
Various Bishop establishments closed: on Wednesday, for example, the Looney Bean coffee shop posted on Facebook: “We chose to close the Looney Bean to protect … everyone else the Center for Disease Control is trying to save right now.”
Muchovej says, “I think [the messaging] did make a difference because on Thursday during my lunch break I drove by the Happys [Happy Boulders] parking lot, and there were only about two dozen cars, which for a weekday is a little heavy but not that bad.
“The real answer is going to be this weekend.”
Also on Thursday the Bishop Area Climbers Coalition posted, in stronger terms than an earlier caution, “Climbing Friends, Please do not travel to Bishop at this time for climbing recreation. We ask that you respectfully stay home to help protect our community.”
That evening the governor of California issued an executive order to stay at home “until further notice.”
In the strictest mandate in the country, and in the country’s most populated state, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered all residents to stay home and for businesses to close, with exceptions only for those providing “essential services”: including grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations.
In a press conference, Newsom said, “You can still take your kids outside, practicing common sense and social distancing. You can still walk your dog.”
The Hostel California, a classic climber and hiker hang that sleeps 50 to 60, was shuttered Friday morning, March 20.
“We are closed,” says an employee, who asked to remain anonymous. Most people had already been cancelling over the last week, he said. As of Friday, only employees remained in the place and a few people from Europe who were making calls and trying to fly home.
Before the governor’s mandate, the employee said, the hostel had not been taking reservations, only honoring those it had.
He shares the reluctance of the small town to receive visitors now. “Please don’t come here. Just don’t travel. Just stay home. It’s only a few weeks.”
McAllister says his blog post received nearly 100,000 views, while his normal posts (usually “goofy stuff to make my friends laugh”) get up to 6,000, tops. “The Bishop folks are saying that the pushback worked. New strict BACC message out after the article, coffee shops closed, etc. I heard there were only 15-20 cars at the Happys the other day. Thank god for all of it. But yeah, this weekend will really tell the story.”
Karen Schwartz of Sage and Summit, who is also former mayor of the town, says of the past week, “We rent out bouldering pads, and everyone canceled their reservations.
“We refunded more and more on Sunday [March 15] and Monday. Monday or Tuesday was our last cancellation.” Asked if she believes the tide has turned, she says, “I think so, from the sample size I’ve seen.”
[Also Read Hang On, or Rather Hold Off: A Climber-Physician Shares Her Thoughts on Climbing and Coronavirus]
Schwartz believes that awareness took time, and for travelers it took more. “In the course of three days, it sinks in. By Friday and Saturday [March 13 and 14] the messaging hit. People were already in Bishop …. I think people have heard the message, they’re like, ‘Oh, we should go’” — meaning leave. “Five or six of my cancellations were, ‘Oh, we heard we shouldn’t come.’
“There’s always going to be outliers, people that don’t listen. At least the people that I’ve interacted with are saying, ‘We feel like it’s irresponsible to come.’ Now it’s kind of a social taboo to go bouldering. I think there’s a lot of pressure, which is good.
“We appreciate you letting people know that this is the time to stay home, and it’s about protecting all the people that we love and care about, the human race, really, and doing our part.”