Guy Jeans is an expert at the sport — some would say religion — of fly fishing.
But as the unofficial trout season approaches on the upper Kern, the owner of Kern River Fly Shop and the founder of Guy Jeans School of Fly Fishing in Kernville is telling his customers and clients to please stay home.
"I put up a really controversial post on the Kern River Valley community Facebook page," Jeans said. "It basically said, 'If you aren't from the Kern River Valley or Kernville, please go home.'
"That was really hard for me because I'm a person who promotes this valley," said Jeans, who has closed his shop until further notice during the COVID-19 period.
For a guy whose living depends on those customers, Jeans' firm request is that much more astonishing. But he's doing it, he said, because he believes the health of his community takes precedence over the health of his business.
"Fishermen from Bakersfield and L.A. are calling me every day," he said. "It's really difficult. These guys are my customers."
Not everyone in the mountain valley region agrees, but Jeans is hardly alone in his determination to protect the area, which has a high number of retirement-age residents and others who may be particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Tobin and Karen Josif own two rentals with access to the beauty and recreation offered by the upper Kern River. But they made the decision that they could not in good conscience open their doors to tourists and other travelers from outside the valley.
They rented one to a long-term tenant who is working on the Isabella Dam Improvement Project. But the other rental has remained vacant, despite inquiries from paying customers.
"There have been many refunds and cancellations," Karen Josif said. "It's amazing the number of inquiries we have received almost daily for the past two weeks."
Like Jeans, the Josifs are adamant that the safety of their neighbors must trump their business interests and need for rental income.
"We welcome tourists normally," Karen Josif said. But in this situation, the general rule is that people should remain home and shelter in place.
Not everyone is listening.
It's a popular culture theme seen repeatedly in movies like “Red Dawn” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Terminator 2” and “Witness.”
Characters escape the perils of the city for the purity and safety of the mountains and deserts of rural America. This perception that mountain towns are safe from city dangers may play a role in the wake of the current COVID-19 crisis.
Most of these small communities have limited medical resources. And when visitors come unprepared, grocery stores can be cleaned out of some products, leaving locals scrambling for alternatives.
The fear and concern is so real, communities like Mammoth Lakes along the eastern Sierra and communities around Lake Tahoe have taken steps to block or limit the number of visitors.
Not everyone in the valley is willing to shoo away profit-generating tourists. Karen Josif pointed out an advertisement for a rental on the upper Kern that bills itself as a "safe zone," and "a place to be safe from the flu."
She was stunned by the ad. So was Roberta Piazza, the longtime owner of the Pine Cone Inn in Kernville. Piazza has taken down the welcome sign for short-term tourists, travelers and recreation seekers — even though she knows of some area lodges that are still accepting guests.
"It's an unnecessary risk for the people who live up here," she said. "Mammoth has completely closed itself off to people who don't live there, but we don't have the luxury of being able to close this valley."
Piazza said she's less concerned with people coming to the region who have second homes and are essentially self-contained.
"It's the onslaught of people traveling through," she said. "That's a whole different situation."
When the question of folks from the "flatlands" coming up to the valley was raised on a local Facebook forum, comments flooded in. And while hundreds of residents are clearly asking travelers to stay away for the duration of the lockdown, others say people have the right to go where they want, COVID or no COVID.
Gary Ananian, president of the Kern River Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps keep the banks of the river clean, but also works closely with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, said the Forest Service has closed its eight improved campsites along the river.
They've locked up restrooms and removed trash bins. But it hasn't kept everyone out.
Other more primitive campsites, called dispersed sites, have remained open, which Ananian believes is a mistake.
"The trash, they just leave it in the campground," he said. "Now we're dealing with exposed human feces.
"At one campsite upriver, a big group of people stayed for nearly a month," he said. "They left one hell of a mess."
In the meantime, people in the valley are just trying to wait it out. And many hope residents of the cities down below are willing to wait it out at home as well.
"There seems to be a small percentage of people who feel they can do whatever the hell they want," Jeans said.
And with official opening day of the spring trout season postponed from April 25 to May 31 in places like Bishop, Jeans is concerned it will result in a flood of recreational fishing enthusiasts to Kernville.
"It really makes them angry when they are told they can't fish," he said.
"They say, 'We're Americans. The government can't tell us what to do.' But they're not using their heads."
Jeans knows he will lose some valued customers over this. But he said he has to stand by the residents of his community. Their safety comes first.