Gas is cheap. The roads are wide open. The car is waiting in the driveway and the battery is dead.
That sums up the outlook of the American Automobile Association, which expects the number of holiday weekend travelers to hit a record low. So low that for the first time in 20 years, AAA did not bother to send out a Memorial Day travel forecast.
“We don’t expect a lot of people to hit the road,” said Sergio Avila, Public Relations Specialist for AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah. “It’s a weird time.”
California is in the early phase of Stage 2 of the planned reopening of the state’s coronavirus shutdown. Leisure travel will not reopen until the state enters Phase 3 and no timeline has been given for that. But there is no statewide travel ban and Avila sees at least one small indicator that people are starting to get out and drive. During the two months of sheltering in place, every form of roadside service offered by AAA declined by double digits except for one: There have been 2,700 more calls to recharge dead batteries than during the same time frame last year.
That’s a leading indicator that motorists are starting, or trying to start, their engines. The hassle of jump-starting the car is rewarded by gasoline sitting at an average price of $2.80 per gallon in California, versus $4.04 last year at this time. And though officials are warning against people getting in their cars for weekend drives, they also understand it’s bound to happen.
The coastline is one of the most obvious Memorial Day destinations, from the stylish and historic 75-room La Playa in Carmel on up to the 165-room Dream Inn overlooking Cowell Beach and the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk amusement park. But the La Playa is closed and the parking areas for the white sands of Carmel Beach are closed to non-locals.
The Santa Cruz Bordwalk is closed and all city beaches are only open before 11 a.m. and after 5 p.m. The Dream Inn is open only to essential workers who must sign a waiver acknowledging that their stay is covered under the shelter-in-place order issued by the county health officer.
That signed waiver represents the teeth in the governor’s recommendation against leisure travel. To ensure that nobody brings the coronavirus or leaves with it, county tourism promoters throughout Northern California are in the uncomfortable position of advising against the very thing they are paid to promote.
“The destination is not actively seeking visitors at this time,” is how Ashley Brune, spokesperson for Carmel-by-the Sea, delicately put it.
“We are asking people not to come to South Lake Tahoe for Memorial Day Weekend,” is how communications manager Chris Fiore put it, less delicately.
Visitors will not be sought until the reopening reaches Stage 3, when leisure travel is again permitted in California, and the entire travel industry statewide is awaiting that moment.
Until then, there will not be much incoming or outgoing travel by air. Passenger traffic at the security checkpoints at San Francisco International Airport is down 96% from the same time frame last year. Weekend pleasure driving will be mostly tolerated, though the California Highway Patrol is recommending against it. He says the roads could be more dangerous with fewer drivers.
The number of drivers ticketed for speeding in excess of 100 mph has increased significantly as traffic has dropped while most people stay at home, said CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley. “The rules still apply, no matter how little traffic there may be,” he said. “Obey the speed limit, fasten your seat belt, drive sober and put down your phone.”
As a disincentive to touring the winding and scenic coastal roads of Marin County, the parking lots at all public beaches and state parks in the hills are closed. And one thing a motorist won’t be able to use a cell phone for is to book a room. Even the detached homes that line the Seadrift Lagoon at Stinson Beach are unavailable for short-term rental.
“With the relaxing of some parts of the order (curbside retail, the opening of some parks) coupled with the nice weather, I think we will see another increase in visitors to the coast this weekend,” said Sgt. Brenton Scheider of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, which will have extra parking enforcement officers on duty.
Memorial Day weekend is the kickoff to the summer tourist season and San Francisco has always had the advantage of the annual Carnaval parade and festival in the Mission District. But Carnaval is canceled. Last year San Francisco hotels were 92% occupied on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, down from 94% in 2018 and 95% in 2017. This year’s occupancy is expected to top out at less than 10%, meaning a loss of $25 million in revenue and $4 million in hotel taxes to the city.
“The reasons that motivate travelers to travel are not here,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, known as SF Travel.
All of Pier 39 and much of Fisherman’s Wharf is closed, as are all performing arts venues and museums. The cable cars are not running. There are no sporting events, no bars, no nightclubs. The traditional Memorial Day ceremony in the Presidio of San Francisco has been canceled for the first time in 152 years and there will be no 21-gun salute. The stay-at-home order for residents remains in place. The dining options are restricted to takeout, which has limited appeal for visitors with no place to take it and eat it.
“Experiencing San Francisco like most people want to, with all of our restaurants and attractions, all of that is closed,” said D’Alessandro, who can see just one bright spot. “The driving experience will be abnormal, as in a lack of traffic,” he said. “Lombard Street is open and you can go down it.”
Further north, the Napa Valley would normally be swarmed with BottleRockers, 40,000 of them a day for all three days of the holiday weekend music festival in downtown Napa. But BottleRock has been postponed to October, and the tourist hotels are not taking reservations before June 1, by order of the county health officer. “Tourism and travel for non-essential purposes is not allowed at this time,” said Angela Jackson of Visit Napa Valley. “Recreation should be limited to the county of residence.”
The region’s wineries and tasting rooms remain closed but Napa did receive a reprieve this week when it was granted a variance by the state to begin limited in-restaurant dining, though the rollout is expected to be slow. Neighboring Sonoma County, meanwhile, does not have a variance, which means restaurants there are not serving in-restaurant dining.
Lake Tahoe is even tougher to keep straight than the Wine Country. Surrounding the lake is a mishmash of five counties spanning two states, and travel restrictions can vary as one circles the lake.
El Dorado County, which runs from Placerville up Highway 50 and around the lake to the state line, has a ban on anybody entering who does not live there or own property. The ban authorizes fines for anyone who violates the ban by sneaking into a weekend Airbnb. But restaurants are authorized to open for limited seating, locals only.
“We stand to lose $2.5 million a month while the pandemic is ongoing,” said Fiore, “but we are stronger together and safer apart right now.”
It pains Fiore slightly to know that less than a mile away, on the other side of the Nevada state line, the Edgewood Tahoe, a gated resort on Highway 50, has reopened on a limited basis. Included are 154 luxury guest rooms, two restaurants with lakeside dining, an 18-hole golf course, pool with hot tub and salon.
Nevada has its own phased-in program for reopening and the four high rise casino hotels remain closed. An appeal to reopen the hotels while leaving the casino floors closed is pending.
Back on the California side of the lake, the River Ranch, with its outdoor deck up against the Truckee River and its charmingly funky 19 rooms, would normally have been booked a month ago. The lodge is closed but the restaurant and deck will open this weekend at half capacity.
The weekend weather is expected to be sunny with temperatures in the 60s. If so, drinks will be moving, but only through the hands of a wait person. Even River Ranch Manager Andy Andrews is not sure how this will work.
“The bar will be open but you can’t sit at it or order a drink from it,” he said.
Neighboring Truckee, which is in a separate county, has one weekend behind it in offering dine-in service, though the fancier places remain closed. The ones that are open are operating at a third to half of capacity.
“It is awkward at first. When you are walking up to the door, it feels very uncomfortable,” said Dave Polivy, the mayor of Truckee who was among the first to eat at Jax at the Tracks, a diner along the railroad tracks.
People were only at every third table and no menus were distributed. It came via cell phone, though he was able to remove his mask to place his order verbally while all servers kept their masks on.
“Once you relax it starts to feel normal,” says Polivy, who is getting into the spirit of the new economy by holding a major sale in the parking lot of his shop, Tahoe Mountain Sports. Ski, hiking and biking gear will be 50% off or better. It is a deal too good to resist, though Polivy, acting as mayor, not merchant, is hoping that Bay Area shoppers will resist it.
“We are worried that we will be inundated with visitors from places that have not had their restrictions eased,” he said. “We do not have the capacity to support a busy Memorial Day weekend.”
Chronicle staff writer Michael Cabanatuan contributed to this report.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter:@samwhitingsf