Oregon’s most famous outdoor recreation city is asking visitors to stay away, at least for the moment.
The Bend City Council voted 4-3 last week to reissue a COVID-19 travel advisory asking tourists not to visit the city of 80,000 through Labor Day, and hotels and vacation rentals not to book new reservations.
The city isn’t shutting down business nor imposing new rules or laws that will lead to fines or enforcement, at least not yet, Bend mayor Sally Russell said. They’re simply asking tourists to stay home and encouraging hotels and rentals not to take new reservations.
“If you can hold back on your vacation to Bend, please do,” Russell said. “It will help us keep our businesses open and reopen our schools in the fall. We’re very worried about a spike here and are asking people to help.
“If you do choose to come and vacation here, understand that our rules on face coverings and distancing will be very strict.”
Bend joins tourist hotspots such as Lincoln County, on the Oregon Coast, that are legally open but have been asking people not to mob their towns as local COVID-19 cases rise.
Deschutes County ranks well-below the state average for COVID-19 cases, at 17 cases per 10,000 residents, compared to 32.6 cases across Oregon as a whole.
But the county has seen a growing number of cases recently — 61 in the past four days, plus the county’s first fatality from COVID-19. And given major outbreaks in other counties east of the Cascades, combined with the sheer number of people flooding into Bend recently, has led to fear of a spike, Russell said.
“We’ve definitely seen a surge in cases in younger people. Bend is a typical vacation spot for people and we’ve really seen a lot of out of state license plates recently,” she said. “We can’t afford to have the kind of spike we’ve seen in other places in Oregon and across the country.”
While the season got off to a quiet start, tourists have arrived en force since the weather warmed. Occupancy rates in local hotels reached 95 percent over the July Fourth holiday, and the local outdoors and pubs have been mobbed, local photographer James Parsons said.
“The more popular trails are packed and the highways in and out of Bend are jammed at the start and end of weekends,” Parsons said. “Social distancing is really not occurring, partly because you can’t get safely off of most of these trails to make room to pass people, and partly lack of effort. The Deschutes River is packed so full of rafts on a weekend, that you could walk across the river and not get your feet wet. Mask wearing, even indoors at pubs and restaurants, is spotty and not being enforced reliably.”
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department said it will consider closing parks if they remain crowded with people not wearing masks.
“We continue to remind people to travel as close to home as possible,” OPRD spokesman Chris Havel said. “If you are traveling, avoid crowds, and wear a face covering when you can’t. We have no plans to close any state parks at the moment, but that could change depending on how people work together to reduce congestion.”
Fewer tourists would impact Bend’s tourism and outfitting economy. In 2017, tourism brought in $903 million in direct spending and supported 9,400 jobs in Central Oregon, according to the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
“It is regrettable the city council felt compelled to implement a travel advisory urging visitors to not come to Bend,” said Dave Nissen, owner of Wanderlust Tours in Bend. “It exemplifies the risk COVID-19 is posing to our community’s physical health. The decision will, once again, cripple an industry so important to our city’s vitality and clearly imperil the security of our community members’ livelihood.
“I respect the council’s deliberation, surely it is a decision that was not easy to make.”
Parsons said it’s been frustrating that the county’s COVID-19 cases have risen with the incoming tide of tourists.
“We had this virus beat in Deschutes County,” Parsons said. “Then we prioritized opening everything tourists like. We offered ourselves up to anyone and everyone who wanted to escape the high infection risk and lockdowns of the big city, and they answered the call in huge numbers.
“Now, COVID-19 cases are rising and many of us locals are staring down more unemployment, more closures and the start of school is in jeopardy.”
Russell said she’s watching numbers closely, and could take stronger action if cases continue to rise.
“This is an advisory,” she said. “We don’t want to go to the next step, but anything and everything is on the table. We’re watching the numbers, looking at the data and doing our best to protect our local citizens.”
Zach Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.