The famed Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park has come under fire for hosting a lavish Thanksgiving feast for hundreds amid stay-at-home pleas from public health officials.
“This Thanksgiving, celebrate among family, friends and the epic beauty of Yosemite National Park,” the hotel wrote in promotion of the event. “Our Executive Chef is once again preparing a legendary feast served in the Ahwahnee stunning dining room.”
Advertised as a “hearty touchless buffet,” the meal cost $103 per adult and $53 per child, and included options like cider-brined turkey, dijon-herbed salmon filet, and vegan wild mushroom strudel, the menu said. Guests were strongly advised to make reservations as seating capacity was “limited due to COVID-19 safety guidelines.”
At the time, Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, was in the orange tier of California’s color-coded blueprint for reopening, indicating moderate risk of COVID-19 transmission. According to state guidelines, restaurants in orange-tier counties can be open with a capacity of 50% or 200 people, whichever is less.
Yet employees told SFGate that the Ahwahnee was fully booked and that “300 to 400″ guests showed up for dinner between 2 and 8 p.m. Some hotel workers said they feared for their safety and that face coverings were not enforced among guests. The bar area reportedly got extremely crowded during the event.
David Freireich, spokesman for Aramark Management Services, which operates the hotel and other concessions in the park, declined to respond to requests for comment. He told SFGate that only 70 guests were in the dining room at any given time.
The company was “below the mandates for reduced seating/capacity restrictions that were in place at the time,” he said.
But in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the Mariposa County Health Department reported a “staggering increase in cases” of COVID-19 and implored people to stay home and celebrate the holiday virtually.
The county moved into the red tier, indicating a more substantial risk of infection, the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 27.
Among employee reports of stress and fear during the Thanksgiving dinner was uncertainty about face mask requirements. As a National Park, Yosemite falls within federal jurisdiction, and Freireich said the hotel could require but not enforce masking among guests.
National Park Service spokeswoman Stephanie Roulett said Yosemite and other parks are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local officials, to adapt to changing conditions.
“We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public areas and workspaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners, and volunteers,” she said. “In short, modifications to park operations will mirror changes in the state’s geographic regions as they go into effect.”
Yosemite has been open and closed at various points of the pandemic, with visitors flocking to the park whenever possible as an outdoor respite amid a worsening surge. Lodging at the hotel closed Dec. 7 in response to stay-at-home orders in the San Joaquin Valley region, which were triggered by dwindling ICU capacity.
The region is currently reporting a scant 0.7% availability of ICU beds, according to state data.
As of Friday, Mariposa County had 185 confirmed cases of COVID-19, up from 126 on Thanksgiving — although County Health Officer Dr. Eric Sergienko said via email that he did not know of any cases in area residents associated with the Ahwahnee dinner.
“This comes with the proviso that cases of communicable disease … are reported in the county of residence, not the county where it may have occurred,” Sergienko said. “Because of this, there may have been cases from outside the county, we just don’t know.”
Mariposa is now one of only two “red tier” counties left in the state, with all others in the purple tier indicating the highest widespread risk of infection.
Yosemite remains open for day-use activities from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.