Hitting the open road is as appealing as ever as summer greets Californians who have spent months sheltering in place.
Even as many health authorities remain apprehensive about spikes in COVID-19 cases, many counties around the state have taken major strides to reopen this month, opening the door to summertime visitors.
Given the plunge in domestic and international air travel over coronavirus concerns, tourism experts expect the overwhelming majority of Californians to stay close to home this year. When they do get out, they’ll more than likely partake in regional travel and road trips.
For Bay Area residents looking to explore the deserts, mountains, forests and coastline, travel experts have some words of advice: It’s best to know specifically where you’re going, where you’re staying and what restrictions are in place in both your destination and in the counties you’ll pass through along the way.
Q: Is travel outside of your county or region safe?
A: It depends on the status of the county where you plan to travel.
For example, San Francisco is reopening more slowly than less densely populated counties in greater Northern California. While you won’t get turned away or cited for traveling in the city, booking a hotel room will likely be difficult until the city progresses in its staged reopening.
Many counties reopened hotels and campgrounds and began accepting tourists on June 12, including Napa, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Sonoma, as well as the Lake Tahoe area. Yosemite National Park reopened (albeit with new restrictions on visitors) last week. When planning road trips for the summer, experts say that it’s safe to assume that if campgrounds and hotels are open, then travel is appropriate.
Q: What is happening at road-trip destinations around California right now?
A: Every county is reopening at its own pace. You should expect restrictions on certain venues, activities and outdoor areas. For example, theme parks, museums, campgrounds, state parks and beaches are reopening on different timelines over the next few months. (Disneyland, however, has already announced a phased reopening starting July 9.)
As of June 12, hotels around the state have been reopening to leisure travelers. However, not all businesses will be open, even in popular downtown corridors in tourism destinations.
Small businesses around the state have been hit hard during shelter-in-place orders and some have closed permanently. Others are easing back into operation. Many retail establishments that have reopened are operating on limited hours and requiring customers to wear masks. Some are setting quotas on the number of people allowed inside at once or setting time limits on customer visits.
The best way to find out what’s going on at a specific business is to check its website or social media profile and to call ahead and ask.
“Do your research before you hit the road,” says Sergio Avila, a spokesman with AAA Northern California. “You should know what’s open, in what capacity are places open, and what’s closed.”
Before you plan your trip, visit the state’s website on county variance for the most up-to-date information on county-by-county travel and business restrictions. Avila recommended checking out the AAA Triptik, which provides map-based information on travel restrictions throughout the U.S.
Q: What safety precautions should I take when visiting a new place?
A: For starters, follow state and federal recommendations for entering public places. That means abiding by social distancing measures, wearing facial coverings and washing your hands frequently. Bring hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol wherever you go and use it freely.
“AAA recommends you travel with items you may not usually travel with, such as your health insurance card, hand sanitizer, masks, extra food and prescription medication,” Avila says.
Grocery stores and gas stations have been functioning normally around the state, so there is no need to stock up on non-perishable foods or extra gasoline.
Q: What’s the best way to find a campsite?
A: If you want to camp, think about camping on national forestland, which covers 33 million acres of prime outdoor areas in the state, including parts of Lake Tahoe, Big Sur and Mount Shasta. The U.S. Forest Service has been rapidly reopening its campgrounds throughout the state. For information on what’s open and what remains closed check out the Forest Service’s interactive information portal.
Other popular outdoor areas at state parks and national parks have been opening more slowly, and often with restrictions on parking, trailhead access and campground availability. Consult Recreation.gov to see what’s open and put in a campsite reservation.
Q: Would renting an RV be a good option for summer travel?
A: If you’re thinking about renting an RV, you are not alone. There’s been a surge in interest in RV rental, says Dyana Kelley, president and CEO of CampCalNow, an RV park and campground industry association.
“RV dealers are telling me there’s a considerable spike in sales and rentals,” Kelley says. “I 1,000% believe it’s because people aren’t going to fly, but they are tired of being in their homes and they want to do something different.”
Kelley cautions those who are new to RVs should do their homework. Driving an RV isn’t like driving a minivan and takes some getting used to. A renter needs to understand how to use the water pump, turn on the propane tank and operate the other systems that make an RV livable.
She also notes that RVs 40 feet or longer are prohibited in national parks, so renting the largest ride could spoil your trip if you were planning on cruising to or through Yosemite.
Q: What is the driving experience like on California roadways? Can I get ticketed for out-of-county travel?
A: In terms of the driving experience, there is far less traffic to contend with, crashes on state highways have been down 75% during shelter-in-place orders and DUI citations have dropped as well. Speeding citations have been up, so be careful and follow normal safe-driving protocols.
Certain places have been ticketing out-of-towners, but many of them have been rolling back those rules in June.
South Lake Tahoe, for instance, phased out its $1,000 fine on nonessential travelers on June 9. However, Santa Cruz County has implemented strict rules designed to keep visitors off the beach — in place through at least July 6 — and authorities there have issued $1,000 citations to sunbathers.
The best way to learn about a county’s specific rules and restrictions is to visit its health department website and sheriff’s department website.
Q: Are there specific concerns about traveling to rural areas?
A: In order to reopen to leisure travel, each county must meet certain state-mandated health requirements. So if a county health department in a rural area has approved leisure travel, that means the county has met the state’s criteria for low health risk.
Still, many rural areas lack sufficient health care facilities in the case of an outbreak, so be careful and be respectful.
“Many of these small, rural places are asking people from out of town to wear face masks, social distance, limit socializing in large crowds,” Kelley says. “You’ll have a good time, just know it’ll be with the people you’re traveling with, not others you meet along the way.”
Nick Rahaim is a writer and commercial fisherman based in Monterey. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @nrahaim.