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What California’s Stay-at-Home Order Means for Travel in the State (ORDER NOW LIFTED!)


***BREAKING: On January 25, 2021, Governor Newsom will be announcing the end of the stay-at-home order for the three California regions remaining under it – the Bay Area, Southern California, and the San Joaquin Valley. The Greater Sacramento region’s stay-at-home order was already lifted on January 12.

This means all counties will return to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy framework, marked by the purple, red, orange, and yellow tiered restrictions. I will keep updating this post in the sections below to indicate what is changing with the various travel-related businesses in the state, from hotels to ski resort to restaurants.

In short, a number of types of outdoor distanced travel should be able to return to much of the state in the coming days. Hotels will be able to open to leisure travelers again and restaurants will be able to offer outdoor dining. Outdoor activities like zoos will likely reopen. California’s out-of-state quarantine and some local quarantines are still in place, so out-of-state visitors may be more restricted. In addition, individual counties can still impose more stringent restrictions than the state tiers require, so always check local restrictions (Bay Area counties have historically been stricter than the state).***


California’s Governor Gavin Newsom issued a new comprehensive stay-at-home order last week that is starting to take effect in some regions of the state. It restricts capacity at or closes a number of business sectors. As might be expected, travel is one of the sectors substantially affected.

In short, California is once again closed to leisure travel.

Palm Springs California Palm Trees

But what exactly does that mean and how does that affect your specific travel plans and timelines to the Golden State? The original order was light on details, but state officials are starting to fill in the gaps. As some regions begin to shut down under the order, additional information has been forthcoming from local orders. Travel-related businesses are also starting to clarify specifically what the order means for their operations.

I’ve sorted through the mess and confusion of legal orders, press releases, and more to break it all down for Californians and would-be California travelers. Here’s everything you need to know about how travel is affected by the December 2020 stay-at-home order.

December 2020 California Stay-At-Home Order Essentials

Governor Newsom issued this latest stay-at-home order on December 3, 2020. For travelers already familiar with the state’s colored tier system (as described in my Disneyland closure post), this is a new layer of rules and restrictions.

Nearly every county in the state is currently in the purple tier. So this new order takes things farther than that, using ICU capacity as the trigger to further shut down or limit a variety of business sectors beyond what the purple tier requires.

The order divides the state into 5 regions that move together into this new level of restrictions if their collective ICU capacity drops below 15%:

  • Bay Area: San Francisco and surrounding counties on the coast
  • Northern California: Extreme northern part of the state of mostly rural counties up to the Oregon border
  • Southern California: LA, San Diego and surrounding areas
  • San Joaquin Valley: Central Valley and most areas surrounding I-5 in the middle of the state
  • Greater Sacramento: Sacramento and the northern Sierra Nevada area (including Tahoe)

The shutdown is triggered initially for 3 weeks, to be reassessed and extended based upon updated ICU metrics as needed. The full details of the order and a new FAQ are posted here.

What Regions are Now Under the California Stay-At-Home Order

Two of California’s 5 regions – Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley – are now subject to the new shutdowns, as their available ICU capacity dropped below 15%. These shutdowns are in effect through at least December 26, 2021.

Five counties in the Bay Area region have also voluntarily imposed these same shutdowns, effective either late Sunday, December 6 or early Monday, December 7. Those 5 counties are San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Marin. The special 5 county Bay Area order will remain in place until at least January 4, 2021.

San Mateo County and counties in the greater Bay Area – Solano, Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, and Santa Cruz will remain on the state’s timeline which is likely to impose the order on the rest of the Bay Area in late December. The Northern California region (north of the Bay Area) is on a similar timeline.

One final region, Greater Sacramento, is not yet subject to the order. But its ICU metrics are extremely close to the 15% cutoff and could move into shutdown later this week.

Update December 27, 2020: Greater Sacramento did indeed hit the metric to trigger the order on December 10, followed by the Bay Area on December 17. Those regions are now subject to the new stay-at-home rules until at least December 31 and January 7, respectively. Only the Northern California region remains free from the new rules. 

How is Travel Shut Down in Regions Subject to the Order?

So what do all these rules and regional groupings mean for travel? Back in mid-November, California already strongly discouraged non-essential travel and recommended that anyone traveling to the state or returning to the state quarantine for 14 days.

But this order goes beyond that. For regions that are subject to the order, travel is – for all intents and purposes – shut down. Almost everything that qualifies as a tourist attraction has to close. This includes museums, zoos, and aquariums (even those located outdoors). Outdoor dining at restaurants is closed as well. Other businesses that aren’t shut down effectively become unusable for leisure travelers coming from any distance.

Let’s take a look at the specifics sector-by-sector to see how the rules play out: 

Hotels, Lodging, & Vacation Rentals 

Under the California order, hotels and lodging can remain open but only to “[a]llow for COVID-19 mitigation and containment measures, treatment measures, provide accommodation for essential workers, or providing housing solutions, including measures to protect homeless populations.”

The order further states that “[e]xcept as otherwise required by law, no hotel or lodging entity in California shall accept or honor out of state reservations for non-essential travel, unless the reservation is for at least the minimum time period required for quarantine and the persons identified in the reservation will quarantine in the hotel or lodging entity until after that time period has expired.”

The bottom line? Hotels are mostly closed to leisure travel, especially to out-of-staters.

As a practical matter, different businesses are implementing this order in a variety of ways. Some may accept bookings and leave it up to guests to determine whether their travels qualify as essential. Some are not allowing anyone with an out of state address or credit card to book. Others have closed online booking entirely and are only allowing bookings directly over the phone to ensure that the booking is for an essential reason and not for leisure travel. Still other hotels will likely shutter completely, choosing not to staff up for a minimal number of guests.

A note about vacation rentals: how this order applies to and will be executed by vacation rentals like the properties on Airbnb, VRBO, and others is still a little fuzzy. Regions and individual owners will likely implement this differently unless the Governor’s office issues more specific regulations. 

At least one vacation destination, Big Bear Lake, is implementing the order by allowing vacation rentals to be occupied but only by members of the same household (H/T Summer Hull at The Points Guy). Visit Palm Springs, in contrast, has stated that the order must be implemented for vacation rentals consistent with hotels – vacation rentals are for essential workers only (see Palm Springs’ guidance here).

As this could likely change quickly, anyone with a vacation rental should communicate early and often with their rental host or agency.

Ski Resorts

Heavenly Skiing Tahoe View

Most ski resorts in California are located in the Lake Tahoe area which is in the Greater Sacramento region that has not yet been subject to the stay-at-home order. These ski resorts have not yet indicated how they will change their operations and what it means for Tahoe ski travelers.

Related: All the Ways the 2020-2021 Ski Season Will Operate Very Differently

Mammoth Mountain, however, is located in the Southern California region and is already subject to the order (as is Big Bear Mountain Resort). It is likely to be the model other ski resorts follow. Mammoth recently released detailed plans to modify operations in compliance with the order as follows:

  • Lodging will be limited to homeowners and anyone needing housing to provide critical infrastructure only (no vacation rentals or hotel rooms for leisure travelers). Reservations for December 27 and later are being taken.
  • Food and beverage services will be adjusted with limited outdoor seating (additional details TBD).
  • Retail capacity reduced to 20%.
  • Lodges will be open only for access to restrooms, lockers and guest services. Guests are required to limit their time inside and masks and distancing are required.
  • Mammoth will refund or reschedule lift tickets for any guests now unable to travel due to the order.

Update December 27, 2020: Now that the Greater Sacramento region is under the stay-at-home order, Tahoe area ski resorts are operating similarly to the above. Lodging is closed to leisure travelers but the slopes are open. That means that anyone traveling from Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area to the slopes of Tahoe must do it as a day trip! Be sure to check out my guide to the closest ski resorts to San Francisco as well as my Tahoe winter driving tips post if you plan to attempt a trip up and back in one day.

Theme Parks

Knotts Berry Farm

Most theme parks have been closed during the bulk of the last 9 months already. But some theme parks managed to open part of their operations with non-ride offerings like food festivals and shopping and dining in the summer and fall. 

What’s changing with these offerings? All outdoor dining must cease, and retail is limited to 20% capacity, so operations will be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s how that is affecting specific theme parks:

  • Disneyland: Downtown Disney opened this summer and Buena Vista Street recently opened as an extension of that. While both will remain open, it will be in very limited ways. Retail capacity will be reduced to 20%. Disneyland is closing all its restaurants and will not allow guests to consume food while on property. Some Downtown Disney restaurants will offer take out only.
  • Six Flags Magic Mountain: The park is has a drive-through experience called Holiday in the Park. This remains open.
  • Six Flags Discovery Kingdom: The park changed its walk through Holiday in the Park offering to a drive through experience once the park’s home county (Solano in the Bay Area region) was subject to the order.
  • Sea World San Diego: The park is entirely closed now.
  • Knott’s Berry Farm: The park is now closed, with the special food festival Taste of Knott’s Merry Farm canceled through December 26, 2020.
  • Legoland California: Miniland within the park had previously been open and a special holiday event was planned for the season. Legoland California has not made an official announcement, but it appears this event has been canceled and all offerings at the park closed.
  • Universal Hollywood: While the theme park has always remained closed, Universal CityWalk has been open for several months. Like Downtown Disney, retail capacity is further limited and all outdoor dining has been closed.

National Parks

Yosemite National Park Half Dome View from Glacier Point

The California stay-at-home order emphasizes the importance of some outdoor recreation during this shutdown. Most national parks have responded by closing their ancillary offerings like lodging and restaurants but by keeping the visitor gates open to day use. 

Here is specifically what each major national park in California is doing to date:

  • Yosemite: The park is open 8 am to 5 pm for day use activities only. Lodging and campgrounds are temporarily closed. Some services and facilities are limited. Shuttles are not operating. (See my guide to Yosemite during 2020 Restrictions).
  • Kings Canyon & Sequoia: All park lodges, restaurants, and campgrounds are currently closed or closing imminently. This means there is no food anywhere for purchase in Sequoia – only Grant Grove Market in King’s Canyon is open. Both entrance stations remain open and staffed for day use visitor entry.
  • Lassen Volcanic: Located in the Northern California region, Lassen is not yet in a region affected by the new order. That said, its main road is mostly closed this time of year due to snow and the park has limited offerings.
  • Death Valley: Lodging, hotels and campgrounds are closed, and permits are suspended. Roads, trails, and overlooks remain open.
  • Joshua Tree: Campgrounds and park ranger programs have closed. All park entrances are open, as are most bathrooms and the park visitor center bookstores and information desks. (Find more information about this park in my guide to Joshua Tree National Park with kids.)
  • Pinnacles: Pinnacles Campground is open but only to “essential travel” visitors. The park remains otherwise open for day use.
  • Channel Islands: Mainland and island visitor centers and the park’s campgrounds are closed until further notice. The five park islands are still open for day visitation.
  • Redwood: All outdoor areas are open, as are retail spaces within visitor centers at 25% capacity. High Bluff Overlook, Klamath River Overlook, and Flint Ridge backcountry camp are closed. Restrictions may change when the Northern California region in which the park is located is subject to the order.

Museums, Zoos, Aquariums, & More

Things to Do in Oakland with Kids - Oakland Zoo Entrance

Popular local and tourist attractions like museums, zoos, aquariums, and family entertainment centers all must close in regions subject to the order. This applies equally to outdoor operations as it does to indoor operations. This means attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Oakland Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, and even Sea World San Diego which was operating part of its park as a zoo and aquarium are all closed.

Restaurants

Dining is a big part of travel and is substantially different under this new order. While much of California never permitted indoor dining, outdoor dining had been booming in many places thanks to the state’s mostly temperate climate.

Under the December 2020 Stay-At-Home Order, restaurants must close outdoor dining as well. They are permitted to remain open for takeout and delivery services only.

Wineries and breweries that don’t also operate as restaurants must also close entirely.

Airports

SFO Airport with Kids - Airport Entrance

Last but certainly not least, all California airports remain open and operational as essential transportation.

It’s possible that tourism demand to the state may wane significantly enough to cause airlines to cancel some flights in the coming weeks. While airline policies have improved dramatically the last few months (most have some version of a no change fee policy), remember that if your flight is canceled or the time changed substantially, you are entitled to a refund and not merely a credit.

Travelers arriving into Los Angeles International (LAX) from out of state or out of the country should be aware that they must complete a mandatory form indicating they are aware of California’s travel advisory, including the state’s 14 day quarantine.

Update December 27, 2020: Note also that the City of San Francisco has imposed a 10 day quarantine on anyone coming to the city from outside a limited number of Bay Area counties. The County of Santa Clara also requires anyone traveling to the county, regardless of method of arrival, to quarantine for 14 days if they traveled from a distance greater than 150 miles from the county’s borders. If you fly into Bay Area airports, some may notify you of these requirements.

How Can you Help California Travel Businesses?

As you might guess, this new stay-at-home order is pretty devastating for California-based businesses in the travel sector. If you want to help keep your favorites afloat or contribute to workers for these businesses who may now lose income, here are some ideas for how you can help:

Read your Favorite California Travel Blogs

Shameless plug time, but who in travel has shame anymore? Not me. 😉 If you love traveling to California, support the writers who bring you the local tips and insights for travel in the Golden State. It doesn’t cost you anything to click around a few travel publications and dream about where you will go when travel returns again.

Here are some of my most-read articles about California travel:

Need some new ideas about who to read? I have a list of the top California travel blogs that highlights authors I personally always find helpful in planning my travels.

Order California Foods and Products

Even if you can’t travel here, there’s no reason you can’t bring a taste of California home. From San Francisco sourdough to See’s and Ghirardelli chocolates, the state has some amazing products that can ship easily. 

SFGate has a detailed list of Bay Area restaurants and bakeries that can ship goodies to you at home this holiday season. Many California wineries and craft breweries can also ship within the state and to most other states now without restrictions.

Book Future California Travel

Even though the world is still seemingly shut down, I still firmly believe as I wrote in a post of only a few days ago, NOW is the time to book 2021 travel. After the holidays when folks have time on their hands and are likely hunkering down, a lot of us will be booking travel. Get ahead of that curve to in-demand destinations like California by booking trips for summer, fall, and winter 2021.

For More Information…

I plan to keep updating this post as more things change, but here are a couple of other great resources that might help you keep up with this constantly changing travel landscape:

California has a new stay-at-home order as of December 2020. What does this mean for travel? A deep dive into specific changes and restrictions that apply to hotels, vacation rentals, ski resorts, theme parks, airports, and many other tourist attractions!

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