California's 'island of romance' crippled by virus

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Carole Cotter, 25-year resident sits alone on the empty main shoreline street on Catalina Island in Avalon, Calif, Saturday, April 18, 2020, In the weeks that the city's normally bustling Two Harbors port has been closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Mayor Ann Marshall estimates the harbor alone has lost nearly $2 million in business. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

AVALON, Calif. – When the gates to California's “island of romance” were all but locked to lovers and pretty much everybody else last month it may have saved the 4,000 residents from a coronavirus outbreak but it destroyed an economy based almost solely on tourism.

The stay-at home order instituted across California isolated tiny Santa Catalina Island from the virus that was spreading rapidly on the mainland. The ocean-front city of Avalon, whose picturesque beauty has sold millions of postcards over the years, has been turned into a ghost town.

The hotels are empty, the bars along the strand have shut down, almost all the restaurants are closed and the snorkelers, boaters, surfers, hikers and others who would be filling the island's beaches and crystal-blue waters are nowhere to be found.

“We're dying here,” said 25-year resident Carole Cotter, pulling off her protective mask to talk after a grocery trip. “We can’t survive just on property taxes, that's insufficient. We need our tourist dollars back.”

Cotter, whose husband has been furloughed from operating the tram that carries people to Catalina’s picturesque “Airport in the Sky,” said that although the peace and quiet has sometimes been pleasant most locals long for the days when people jammed the streets, crowded restaurants and made it difficult to find a place to pitch a towel on the beach.

“It’s very, very quiet here and we’re not used to that,” she said. “We’re used to being a noisy, touristy town.”

That was the vision of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate who purchased Santa Catalina in 1919 and built many of its landmarks to draw visitors. He also owned the Chicago Cubs and used the island as the team's spring training location.

Further popularized by the 1950s pop song “26 Miles,” a reference to Catalina's location from the Southern California shoreline south of Los Angeles, the island draws more than a million tourists a year, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.