Recreation-dependent communities like Joshua Tree hope to avoid worst of COVID by asking visitors to stay home.
Following 2019’s super bloom, this Spring’s pandemic transformed the famed Joshua Tree area, popular among campers, hikers, and instagrammers, into a very different place. Wildflowers continue to bloom throughout the hi-desert (also known as the Morongo Basin), but this year, prospective visitors have been asked via state and local lockdowns to avoid the area and stay home, both to stay safe from COVID-19 themselves, and to help prevent its spread to the area.
Before the lockdown, rural resort destinations throughout the country – and especially in the mountain west – suffered tourist-related COVID outbreaks, overwhelming local hospitals. Despite the economic hit they’re experiencing, recreation-dependent communities like Joshua Tree hope to avoid that fate by asking visitors to stay home.
After being packed by visitors during the first weekend of the California lockdown, Joshua Tree National Park closed over social distance concerns. The gateway towns that surround it also shut down. Nearly all area businesses are still closed up tight, giving the communities strung along California highway 62 – the main artery through Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms – a ghost town feel.
Scenic communities like these currently promote mottos such as “your adventure can wait” and “closed” to dissuade tourists from visiting due to COVID concerns:
On the East end of Joshua Tree, the funky-chic collection of shops called Sun Alley are silent. The Beauty Bubble hair salon there hung a “germ-free kissing booth” outside: a mirror painted with red lips.
A few blocks west, Joshua Tree Natural Foods is open, but its door is also locked. Attracting both tourists and locals makes the local store both a crossroads and a potential COVID hot spot. Patrons must ring the bell to enter, and then walk across an antiseptic mat before shopping; face masks and social distancing are mandatory. Employee Alyce Herrera feels these steps have helped maintain a safer work and shopping environment. Noting trends among the visitors she’s met there during lockdown, she said, “They were difficult and many [for] the first three weeks… but they steadily declined and started wearing masks – now that it’s mandatory. Now I see them coming back.”
Reflecting on the mood in the store, Herrera said: “People are stressed but mostly they are acting good now.“ She added, saying “The first couple weeks were hard. All the employees were stressed and afraid. I [also] heard that from many people working around town. I have a coworker that is still stressed. People come in and tell you their theories. We’re usually the only person people talk to all day, and they want to either inform or save us.”
Herrera continued, “I think everyone I know, including me, have broken down crying from the stress. I’ve come to accept it and move forward, but I know people who are still stressed to the point of tears. I’ve also had dreams about dying. I feel more safe at this store than any others. We’re on top of keeping it safe and sanitary … I eased giving them masks all the time the first few weeks. Most have cloth masks now. The only one that refuses to comply is one of the postal workers. I give him a mask, but he will not use it.”
Winding north from Yucca Valley, state route 247 passes Kathy Chism’s front yard, which has hosted an ongoing yard sale since her husband’s recent death, “to make ends meet,” Chism said. During the lockdown, neighbors often drop by to either donate items normally destined for shuttered thrift stores, or shop. “Things were slow at first,” Chism said through her mask, “but since people started receiving their stimulus checks, things are picking up. I sell things pretty cheap, and since they’re not working, people can’t afford something big.”
Asked about the lockdown, Chism answered, “I’m really disgusted with all this, we really don’t know what’s going on, to be honest, what we’re being told. I never in my life – today is my birthday, and I’m 69 – and I never thought I’d see anything like this, where people were afraid to go outside.”
A recent USC study showed that the Morongo Basin’s demographics skew older, sicker, and lower income than average; that means COVID’s effect in the area could prove particularly harsh, and it has arrived. As of Wednesday April 29, Morongo Basin infection counts totaled 45, plus two dead. While relatively low, the number of persons testing positive is currently doubling every 10.4 days. (Source: San Bernardino County.) This suggests the local COVID numbers are still trending upward.
Describing herself as a local activist, Herrera also felt that both compliance and priorities could improve. Speaking to opening up California post-COVID, Herrera remarked: “I think it’s too early to open up at all in all of California. I also don’t think what they call essential is essential. I feel the animal shelters and the humane society [are] more essential than golf.”
Hi-desert organizations and charities have stepped up to boost food giveaways and other emergency needs. Some use novel approaches, such as the re-purposed news box in front of tattoo shop Ink and Steel, which now serves as a free food kiosk. Steven “Sun” Downer, who also volunteers at free meal program Food Not Bombs, keeps it stocked with the help of a handful of friends. “This is a really low-key operation” Downer said, “directed towards the ‘home-free’ people.”
In early April, administrative staff at the Joshua Tree Medical Center estimated that April 25 would mark the area’s local COVID surge. Anticipating this, the county doubled its total ICU bed capacity by April 22. According to San Bernardino County, as of April 29, demand for ICU beds continues to increase, with almost 75% in use, while the doubling time for COVID in the county slowed slightly, to every 10.4 days (down from 9.4 a few days earlier.)
The hi-desert’s health care services are limited: The Joshua Tree Medical Center normally has a total of 59 hospital beds, including 4 beds in ICU, all serving an estimated 60,000 people in the Morongo Basin. A sudden surge could quickly overwhelm it. JTMC administrators declined to comment whether they followed the county’s trend, and expanded capacity – though they did add a COVID admissions tent outside the hospital. According to the county, the medical center’s continued care facility accounted for most of the infections and both deaths to date, in the town’s COVID statistics.
Speaking to us while enjoying a recent lunch break outside the Joshua Tree Saloon, Morongo Basin Emergency Medical Service personnel seemed relaxed. They noted that they’ve seen good face mask and social distance compliance, and added that they notice few visitors to the area, far below what they normally see during Spring – the area’s peak season. They considered the relatively sparse tourism likely helped reduce viral spread in the community.
These emergency staffers expressed hope that people would keep wearing face masks and practice social distancing as long as needed, saying, “these actions help reduce local infection.” They also felt the area’s hospital resources were currently ahead of the problem, saying, “any local COVID cases are being mitigated.”
The EMT’s also described how they completely suit up in protective gear while on duty, since they “need to assume that any patient might be COVID positive.”
Asked about the med-evac helicopter that lifted off from the JTMC just before our interview, our sources said that whatever the illness, “the patient’s health status would dictate whether they might be flown” to other medical facilities. They also noted that the JTMC has its own negative pressure room, which is critical to isolate highly infectious patients under treatment.
With an eye towards opening up the area, San Bernardino county has recently re-opened county parks, rivers, lakes and recreation areas. This does not include state or national parklands such as Joshua Tree National Park, but the local and county-run parklands do allow recreational day hikes, with hikers expected to wear masks and exercise social distancing.
Three local protesters appeared on the corner of Highway 62 and CA Route 247 on May 1, seeking an end to the lockdown. Val Carlomagno was one of them, and said, “I’m a brain cancer survivor. I don’t like my rights trampled on. I think we should open California now. The sick or elderly can stay home.” Across the street from Carlomagno, Matt Wilkinson held a five-foot sign and waved to the occasional honking driver. “All my life I heard about the liberal revolution,” he said, adding, “here it is, and they’re doing what they’re told.”
In-between the two protesters, Joe Jacobs stood behind a folding table, selling face masks. “I lost my job, I was there ten years, and they laid me off,” he said, adding, “I have to take care of my kid and my wife, so here I am.” Asked if he knew about the additional $600 in weekly CARES Act COVID relief he may qualify for, Jacobs replied. “I did not know that. Thank you.”
COVID deaths are expected to double during May, reaching 3,000 deaths nationally per day. California’s many outdoor destinations remain mostly closed under both state and national orders, to help mitigate that effect.
To find out more about safely visiting nearby national parks as they open, visit: