Recreation-dependent communities like Joshua Tree hope to avoid worst of COVID by asking visitors to stay home.

A two-story figure of a cowboy, with the addition of a white surgical mask and blue latex gloves, stands outside a gift shop called The Station, in Joshua Tree, California, April 17, 2010. (Julie Dole/Pirate)
Western figure outfitted in COVID mask and gloves outside The Station gift shop, Joshua Tree, CA., April 17, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

Pirate Staff, May 4, 2020.

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:

Instagram post featuring a lone hiker, standing on an outcropping to admire the jagged peaks of Mt. Whitney, rising from a thin necklace of snow, into a clear blue sky. But in the sky, white text read: "Your adventure can wait."
A recent Inyo County, California’s public service announcement on their Instagram page. (Via Instagram.com)

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 mirror, laid sideways, and painted with a series of red lips, says "Germ Free Kissing Booth" in black letter across it. It is mounted on an exterior wall of the Beauty Bubble hair salon, Joshua Tree, California. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)
Germ-free kissing booth outside The Beauty Bubble hair salon, Joshua tree, CA., April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

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.”

Employee Alyce Herrera waves her hand in a blue latex glove and smiles behind a plaid face mask, while working at Joshua Tree Health Foods. Joshua Tree, California, April 24, 2020. (Photo via A. Herrera.)
Alyce Herrera inside the Joshua Tree Natural Foods store, Joshua Tree, CA. April 24, 2020. (Via Alyce Herrera)

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.”

An older, heavy-set woman in a festive red-patterned face mask and sunglasses sits in the sunlight next to her walker during her yard sale. Yucca Valley, California, May 1, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)
Kathy Chism at her yard sale, Yucca Valley, CA. May 1, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

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.”

Free food kiosk made from repurposed news stand, outside Ink and Steel tattoo shop, Joshua Tree, California. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole)
Free food kiosk outside Ink and Steel tattoo shop, Joshua Tree, CA. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

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.)

Yellow wildflowers bloom near a white event tent set up in the parking lot of the Joshua Tree Medical Center, Joshua Tree, California. April 24, 2020.
COVID patient assessment and admissions tent, Joshua Tree Medical Center, Joshua Tree, CA. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

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.”

Med-evac helicopter takes off from Joshua Tree Medical Center, Joshua Tree, California. April 24, 2020.
Med-evac helicopter lifts off with patient from the grounds of the Joshua Tree Medical Center, Joshua Tree, CA. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/ Pirate)

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.

Woman in red shirt and jeans holds up a sign to passing traffic to protest the COVID lockdown. A fellow protestor wearing a POW-MIA jacket stands socially distant from her. Joshua trees can be seen in the distance, past the traffic. Yucca Valley, California. May 1, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)
Lockdown protester Val Carlomagno (right) holds up her sign, Yucca Valley, CA. May 1, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate)

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.”

A telephone line bisects the clear blue sky behind a half-mannequin in a blue t-shirt, who's modeling a COVID mask for sale. Past a pod mall in the background, snow-capped Mt. San Gorgornio rises in the distance. Yucca Valley, California, April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/ Pirate)
Mannequin models COVID mask for sale, Yucca Valley, CA. April 24, 2020. (Julie Dole/Pirate.)

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:

https://www.nps.gov/findapark/index.htm