By Judi Bowers

The message couldn’t be more clear — stay home. And that’s an order issued by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Yet, staying home seems to have a different meaning or translation for some people in California, at least when it comes to visiting the mountains. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors to Big Bear are encouraged to stay away, to stay home under the governor’s order, but stay in their own home not in a rental home. Visit Big Bear, the city of Big Bear Lake and San Bernardino County issued messages throughout the Southland that tourist destinations were closed, and visitors should stay home until the COVID-19 stay at home order is lifted.

All vacation rental management agencies have stopped booking rentals through April 30 at least. No check-ins have taken place for almost two weeks, and visitors who were already in residence were asked to check out. Reservations were canceled. All commercial lodging sites have ceased operations as well. Airbnb, after numerous calls and emails have stopped taking reservations for the city of Big Bear Lake but are still allowing bookings in the unincorporated areas. County officials are working to get the firm to comply for areas beyond the city limits.

Then came the snow April 6 and 7, and a broadcast by weatherman Mark Kriski of KTLA. Kriski, during his morning weather report April 7, let Southern California know that there is a lot of snow in Big Bear. He encouraged people to get a bigger car, an SUV, and pack in the kids, after counting them and head for Big Bear to play in the snow. They should find a place and then just stop and play, making sure they were away from other people to practice social distancing of course.

The uproar by Big Bear residents watching the broadcast could be heard around the Valley. The emails and calls to KTLA were fast and furious, and according to Frank Rush, Big Bear Lake city manger, the station retracted the suggestion by Kriski to visit Big Bear for snow play.

Rush said he heard about the Kriski broadcast about 10:30 a.m. April 7 and immediately emailed the TV station. “We don’t need people here to play in the snow,” Rush said, adding he is hopeful the station corrected the statements made by Kriski.

Tiffany Swantek, public information officer for the Big Bear Sheriff’s Station, posted a No Snow Play message using social media early in the day, prior to Kriski’s broadcast, knowing the snow would possibly attract people wanting to play. It’s not meant to keep Big Bear residents from playing in the snow or building a snowman in their own yards, Swantek said. The message is aimed directly at visitors, she said.

Swantek contacted San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s public affairs department regarding Kriski’s broadcast, she said.

Valley residents have raised concerns about visitors still renting houses in Big Bear during the COVID-19 emergency. Concerns range from spreading the corornavirus in Big Bear, violating the stay at home order and, taxing the limited resources in Big Bear such as grocery supplies and the local hospital if an outbreak were to occur locally.

On April 7 as snow blanketed Big Bear, the No Snow Play order was ignored in some areas of the Valley. One resident, who asked not to be named, said there were at least 11 people who were playing in the snow in her yard. When asked to leave, the group moved next door, also to private property, and continued to play in the snow.

City of Big Bear Lake code enforcement was notified and arrived at the location, and the trespassing sledders moved on.

Swantek said there are certain codes the Sheriff’s Department can enforce in relation to people sledding on private property or those violating the governor’s order. Certain codes apply regarding restrictions in place under the governor’s stay at home order, especially in relation to snow play, which isn’t considered essential, Swantek said. And if someone is trespassing on private property, that is against the law, she said.

Residents are asked to call the nonemergency dispatch number to report such violations at 909-866-0100.

Rush said the concerns about visitors in Big Bear during the COVID-19 emergency has led to suggestions that Big Bear should be closed to all nonresidents. It’s not a simple process, Rush said. There are a lot of ramifications to such a closure, he said.

The city of Big Bear Lake does not have the authority to close all of Big Bear. It  could close the city’s 6.5 square miles, but that isn’t as simple as it seems, Rush said. The closure could prevent Valley residents outside the city limits from accessing services such as the grocery stores, banks or even doctors offices and the hospital, all of which are located within the city limits.

As a city manager who has led cities in other resort areas, Rush said he has closed communities during wildland fires, large snowstorms and hurricanes. But those events have a somewhat known duration, Rush said. No one knows how long the COVID-19 emergency will last, he said. And it changes daily, he added.

Closing a community is a big decision, and if Big Bear is closed, it begs the question should San Bernardino, Redlands, Victorville and other communities surrounding the mountains also be closed, Rush said. Big Bear residents are traveling to those areas to care for family and to shop at Costco, he said.

The rules need to apply across the board, and there are a lot of ramifications to consider before closing a community to the outside,

Rush said.

As of press time, Big Bear has five confirmed cases of COVID-19, and there are 547 cases in San Bernardino County. There are 17 deaths in the county due to COVID-19.

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