Everything frustrating about the pandemic is happening in South Tahoe

In South Lake Tahoe, the California-Nevada state border cuts the town in half. Here, the state border is not a highway sign welcoming you to California or Nevada. Rather, it’s a loud, obvious convergence of casinos, crowds, traffic, hotels, nightclubs, a ski resort, tourist gift shops and breweries.

The walls of high-rise casinos are built almost exactly on the line of the border itself — which is Nevada’s way of saying to Californians: Welcome to the Silver State.

As the pandemic hurtles toward an unwelcome anniversary, the two sides of that border have been operating for months under completely different sets of rules.

On one side of the border, Nevada’s casinos are open 24/7, albeit at 25% capacity under the state’s “pause,” which Gov. Steve Sisolak extended on Monday for another 30 days.

In Nevada, you can eat at a restaurant inside. You can book a hotel room. You can play poker. You can play slots. You can sit at a bar, take off your mask, order a drink and also smoke a cigarette — all indoors.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in California — which in South Lake Tahoe is literally across the street — businesses are emerging from nearly five weeks of a second shutdown that ordered bars closed, restaurants open only for takeout and lodging prohibited from housing nonessential visitors. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the Greater Sacramento region would be released from its shutdown, going back into the purple tier of the state’s reopening plan and easing restrictions somewhat, including a green light for outdoor dining.

“For the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, it’s been a very confusing situation from the get-go,” says Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “The two state lines, the two governors and, you know, the two counties — not to mention the other three counties that surround the lake. For visitors and for residents, it’s been frustrating and confusing and it just added an angst to the whole thing.”

“Welcome back to paradise.” Nevada casinos are open 24/7.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

On a recent Saturday evening, I went to South Lake Tahoe’s stateline to walk across the border and see how these two sets of rules were playing out on the streets.

Hard Rock Casino’s billboard advertised $4 shots of Fireball, and the marquee at Harveys said, “Welcome back to paradise.” Inside the casinos, some people were masked, some weren’t — apparently if you’re drinking cocktails, a beer or a coffee, the mask rule doesn’t apply. One sign that we were still in a pandemic: Circles reminding gamblers to social distance were scattered across the kitsch casino carpet near the slot machines.

Outside, guests checking in and out of the hotels were clustered around luggage near valet curbs. I kept walking down the street, toward California. A long line of people waiting to get into a bar stretched down the sidewalk. Out front, a sign said the bar is open 24/7. “Masks required,” it stated. Next door, every table inside a popular brewery and pizza joint was full. The sign said they were open at 50% capacity, except the 50 was crossed out with black marker and someone scribbled, “25%.”

Then I crossed the street and stepped into California, where the governor’s shutdown was still in place. Except the California side was just as crowded as the Nevada side.

Lines spilled out of coffee shops and ice cream spots on a Saturday in South Lake Tahoe.

Lines spilled out of coffee shops and ice cream spots on a Saturday in South Lake Tahoe.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Heavenly Village is a development at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort that’s built around the bottom of the ski resort’s gondola, with arches and large walkways. It’s next door to the casinos but located in California. Last Saturday, restaurants were open for takeout only, and crowds of people sat at unserviced tables and fire pits on the patios eating their food. Mayor of the city of South Lake Tahoe Tamara Wallace told SFGATE that the Heavenly Village is a public space, so it’s legal for people to eat their takeout on the benches and tables just outside of the restaurants.

It was around time for après ski, just as the lifts were closing at Heavenly, pizza boxes stacked high on sticky tables. Revelers — some still wearing ski boots — sipped golden ales out of plastic cups. Lines spilled outside coffee shops and ice cream joints onto the sidewalk. Another long line for the trampolines in the center of the village wrapped around the ice skating rink.

Nevada and California’s different approaches to the pandemic — plus the thousands of visitors — are all clashing in South Lake Tahoe, leading to divisions and infighting among different factions in the community.

“We saw real issues with Nevada and California here on the South Shore,” said Mayor Wallace, “having two different sets of rules and how that was confusing for people and how it could really upset our businesses versus their businesses.”

A restaurant on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe tries to keep up with the shifting state policies during the pandemic.

A restaurant on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe tries to keep up with the shifting state policies during the pandemic.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Meanwhile, South Lake Tahoe is setting new records as COVID cases rise exponentially. Of El Dorado County’s 7,222 confirmed COVID cases, almost 2,000 are from the Tahoe region, the vast majority reported since November. Last Friday, 98 South Tahoe residents tested positive for COVID. The city of South Lake Tahoe has a population of 21,000, but that figure doesn’t include the people who live on the Nevada side or the communities on the outskirts of the city.

The confusion has been compounded by the absence of enforcement. In California, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office stated it would not enforce the state’s shutdown. Wallace said the city of South Lake Tahoe did not have enough police resources to respond to the many complaints of businesses flouting the closure.

“We never had pandemic police,” Chaplin said. “No one ever had the resources to provide enforcement. So that’s also been at play: Why is that [vacation rental], for instance, occupied? There were no resources in the entire world that could really handle that kind of enforcement that was actually being asked to comply with. That’s aggravating and angering, too. People are scared. People are confused. People are shut in or shut out. Nobody won, in this particular case. All of us got affected.”

On a Tahoe Facebook group dedicated to conversation about COVID-19, many South Tahoe residents post daily about restaurants stretching the limits of the closure, vacation rentals that have been full every day over the holidays and hotels screening guests as essential by having them sign a simple waiver.

“There’s a lot of frustration for a lot of the residents of South Lake Tahoe that are faced with the influx of visitors,” says Aaron Maffitt, who moderates a Facebook group for more than a thousand Tahoe residents to share information about COVID. Threads that start with rising COVID cases often unfurl into grievances about tourism. “Emotions are running really high on the subject right now.”

South Lake Tahoe's sending mixed messages at the state border, where two different policies for COVID are clashing.

South Lake Tahoe’s sending mixed messages at the state border, where two different policies for COVID are clashing.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

For a lot of South Tahoe residents, the discrepancy and contradictions of the pandemic are unfolding in their daily lives: Many live in California, but work in Nevada.

“Being a blackjack dealer or a poker dealer is one of the most dangerous front line things you could do,” said Amanda, a card dealer who lives in California and has worked at a Stateline, Nevada, casino for 30 years. Casinos have strict policies restricting employees from speaking to the press. Out of fear of retribution from her former employer and also future employers who could hire her after she’s been vaccinated, she requested that her name be changed to protect her identity (which we granted per the SFGATE ethics policy).

Last spring, Nevada’s Sisolak gave the unprecedented order to shut down casinos in the state. When the casinos reopened, Amanda said partitions were built between guests at the card tables, but there wasn’t enough protection in place to make her feel safe at work. Her daughter is a long-hauler and has been sick with COVID since the spring, and Amanda is scared she would become a long-hauler, too, so she left her job. Her employer said if she wanted to come back to work, she would have to reapply.

Amanda said that she’s lived in South Tahoe since 1979. In all her years, she’s never seen crowds of tourists in Tahoe like she’s seen this year. She doesn’t leave her house except to run basic errands like going to the post office or picking up groceries from the food bank, which she says is a safer route than the grocery store. In normal times, she loves her job for the people she meets from all over the country and the world. In the pandemic, that kind of exposure is a hazard.

“You’re so close to so many people and they don’t wear their masks,” Amanda said. She told me that in the casino she worked at, the card tables were next to a bar. Cocktail servers also bring drinks to players. “Everybody has their masks off because they’re drinking. When you’re drinking or smoking, you don’t have to have a mask on. It’s very dangerous. That’s why I did not go back.”

During the shutdown, customers could only order takeout from California restaurants. But they could still dine indoors in Nevada.

During the shutdown, customers could only order takeout from California restaurants. But they could still dine indoors in Nevada.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Maffitt said he’s had a ski pass every winter for 25 years, but forwent one this year. He told me about a trip to the grocery store to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy that gave him anxiety because of the number of out-of-towners inside buying supplies. Maffitt works in the restaurant and food service industry, but he’s been unemployed since March. He has plenty of colleagues who are still working, though, and he hears his share of horror stories.

“I’ve got a friend who has been spit on,” Maffitt said. “It feels almost like the front lines and the Wild West here right now.”

On the street, I reached the end of the other side of the state border, marked by a Raley’s grocery store. I debated whether I should go inside. The parking lot was absolutely packed and I empathized with the anxiety Maffitt described. I decided against it and turned back around to head to my car, which was parked in Nevada. I pulled my mask tighter as a crowd of revelers engulfed me on the sidewalk.

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