Two ways to look at tourists in the Kern River Valley these days

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Tourism is king in the Kern River Valley, and it’s not even close. Boating, camping, fishing, rafting — all are huge. But what happens when tourists come to town during a pandemic?

Kernville, Lake Isabella and the other communities of the Kern River Valley have been largely spared from the coronavirus — and they’d like to keep it that way. And nothing works better than isolation and social distancing.

That’s why, last weekend, some residents of those mountain communities were angry at the very people area businesses normally welcome with open arms — tourists.

Certainly no businesses were complaining in February, when Kernville had a record turnout for Whisky Flat Days. But It was a different story when visitors came to enjoy the first warm spring day of the year.

“Campground closed — what do people not get about that?” said Jeri Horenstein, a Kern River Valley resident. “The Sheriff’s Department says that it is very difficult to do (effective enforcement) with limited access, and I get that, but I know that they passed out (many) citations, and people still don’t care. They get their stimulus checks and say, ‘Let’s go to the Kern River Valley.”

Jon Feldschau, president of the Kernville Chamber of Commerce, says those campers and boaters are keeping the region’s economy afloat — and not enough locals appreciate that fact.

“You get people of different types who will complain because it’s busy in the summer,” he said. “You know, it could be no pandemic but they’re gonna call in, they’re gonna complain, saying the roads are too packed. You’re gonna have that no matter what. This is a great soapbox to climb on right now.”

Most businesses, of course, were locked tight last weekend, including those that provide the Kern River Valley’s most popular and exciting diversions — rafting. Evan Moore, co-owner of Sierra South Mountain Sports, was one such businessman.

“Typically at this time of the year we would have 50 guides that are already on staff and here,” he said. “We would be in a big ramp-up period. And as of right now, we have no staff, we have no guides, we’re basically completely shut down.”

Sierra South was open for one rafting trip — March 14 — and then they were shut down. Moore’s best guess for when they might reopen is June 1.

“Hold off,” he said. “Be patient. Let’s let this thing blow by. As soon as we’re ready to have you guys up, we’re going to let everyone know.”

Those that are open are playing it safe — and asking visitors to do the same.

“As a chamber we’re not trying to say shut everything down and don’t come up here,” Feldschau said. “We’re trying to say, just obey the laws.”

Alfred Watson, district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, tells that all developed Forest Service-managed areas in the Kern River Valley are closed at least until May 15. That means no restrooms or trash services. Visitors, he said, should be prepared to pack it in and pack it out.

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