The handwritten message was attached to a stop sign near Deep Creek Lake.
"NON-RESIDENTS PLEASE LEAVE,” it said in black letters. Below was the word “NOW” in red.
“I was shocked when I saw that,” said Joe Zamoiski, a mortgage lending executive who splits time between his homes in suburban Montgomery County and the Deep Creek Lake area of Garrett County, Maryland’s westernmost county. “I just don’t think that’s who we are."
Garrett, like many other lake, beach or mountain destinations in Maryland and across the country, is now managing tensions between locals and visitors or second-home owners who have fled densely populated areas such as Baltimore and Washington to ride out the coronavirus pandemic.
The migration from urban hot spots to more secluded — and often more scenic — surroundings has placed tourist areas such as Deep Creek Lake and Ocean City in the unusual position of steering away visitors as the popular Memorial Day weekend approaches.
Last month, Garrett’s health officer banned vacation home rentals, saying the local medical center could not handle a surge of COVID-19 cases brought on by outsiders.
“The fear is that they would try to get away from the inner city and bring something with them,” said Paul Edwards, chairman of the county commissioners and a Republican.
“We’ve had people ask us to shut the border down," he said. “We can’t do that. And you can’t prohibit people from coming to their property.”
Ocean City has not only closed its beaches and boardwalk, but is urging people to stay away. A 30-second television spot called “We’ll Be Here” pans a long, lonely stretch of beach as a voiceover delivers the message: “Rest assured, when it’s finally time to come out again, we’ll be here waiting.”
“Stay away” is being repeated around the country. In a March tweet, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy urged those who with homes at the Jersey Shore “to NOT go to them at this time.” In Dare County, North Carolina, officials established checkpoints to keep visitors, including vacation home owners, away from the Outer Banks due to “the unprecedented health threat posed by COVID-19.”
Of course, such friction between locals and out-of-towners in resort towns is nothing new.
“Sometimes people don’t like all the crowding and how busy things are,” said Ken Johnson, a University of New Hampshire demographer. “On the other hand, economically they are dependent on all those second homeowners and visitors. It’s a pretty complex relationship.”
Revenue from Deep Creek Lake — including property and accommodations taxes and other sources — accounts for 45% of Garrett’s operating budget of about $80 million, according to the county.
While metropolitan areas have seen many more coronavirus cases, the virus has been spreading rapidly in rural America.
Johnson said rural communities typically have limited health care resources and higher percentages of residents considered high risk than urban areas.
“In general, rural America, including these recreational areas, tend to have older populations. Other things being equal, that increases the risk of mortality or illness from the disease,” he said.
Garrett had four confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, and no virus-related deaths. The county has an acute care hospital, Garrett Regional Medical Center in Oakland, about 10 miles from Deep Creek Lake. It has 55 beds and recently opened a COVID-19 drive-thru testing clinic behind its campus.
Once a retreat for Pittsburgh steelworkers’ families, Deep Creek Lake is dotted with lakefront luxury mansions with five or more bedrooms. While it served as a destination for vacationers from Baltimore and Washington during the railroad era, it regained prominence as an attraction with the construction of Interstate 68, dedicated in 1991. The highway made Deep Creek about as close to Baltimore, by travel time, as Ocean City.
This year’s particular concern about out-of-towners arose in early March just as the first coronavirus cases began appearing in the MidAtlantic states.
“We get a lot of people here from D.C., Baltimore, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia,” said Claire Swauger, 53, a hotel revenue manager and resident of McHenry, a short drive from the lake. “I don’t object to out-of-staters at all — they certainly fuel our economy here. It’s more about being responsible. Coming to a rural community for vacation and filling up a rental house with 12 or more people is the very thing we should be avoiding.”
County Health Officer Robert Stephens banned vacation home rentals March 26, with violators subject to up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The owners of second homes are permitted to stay, but must quarantine for 14 days if they enter the county from out of state. Hotels and motels remain open because they are considered essential businesses under Maryland’s stay-at-home order.
County governments are permitted to make their own health decisions so long as they don’t conflict with state orders, said Charles Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health.
While rare, restrictions such as the rental ban likely pass legal muster if the county “has good evidence that rentals would spread COVID and burden the health system,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.
Zamoiski, 46, the bank mortgage official, said he typically travels in May from Montgomery to spend half the year at his home in the Deep Creek Lake area, where he fishes and plays golf. He and his wife came early this season — in March — when the coronavirus hit.
He said a neighbor recently sent him a photo of the “PLEASE LEAVE” sign. He posted the picture on Facebook, where it generated more than 200 comments, most of them opposed to the sign’s message.
“The thing that got me is it said ‘Leave now,’ ” Zamoiski said. “I love it up there. I think people are afraid of a mass exodus from the city to the rural area and them not having the facilities if there was an outbreak in the county.”
There are other worries, too. “When it first started, people were getting upset that a lot of second homeowners and rental people were going to Walmart and other stores and buying up all the supplies, especially toilet paper and paper towels and cleaning products,” said Edwards, the county commissioner. "I think it’s eased up."
But Edwards said “I have — and still do to this day — received emails saying, ‘I saw a car with a New York license plate.’ Or ‘from Pennsylvania.’”
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Stephens, the county health officer, said the no-rentals rule can be challenging to enforce.
“I would say our rental agencies were very cooperative. They understood," he said.
Online vacation rental services such as VRBO and Airbnb “are a little harder to get on board, but the letters have been sent to all the (property) owners,” he said.
VRBO said in a statement that homeowners and property managers not complying with laws and emergency orders related to COVID-19 “will be warned, suspended or permanently removed from the site.”
Kelley Gossett, head of Maryland policy for Airbnb, said the service “is working with local governments in real time” to address COVID-19 orders, while offering rentals for health care responders who want to isolate from their families.
Maryland State Police has not reported any arrests for violations of the no-rentals rule.
“There are some spot checks going on,” Stephens said. “If there is somebody in a home, they’d better be on the deed.”