Alcatraz Holds its Allure, Even in COVID Times

  • Alcatraz Island, a top attraction for leisure travelers in SF, saw just 12,263 visitors in September, compared to 163,134 a year earlier

  • Despite limited ferry availability, locals and out-of-town tourists alike are seizing the chance to visit the island, which is heavily booked in normal times

  • Domestic travel is expected to recover in 2021, though SF Travel projects the City will host 30% fewer visitors next year compared to 2019

Tourism in San Francisco is down dramatically. From a steep drop in airport arrivals to mostly-empty hotels, statistics show a decimated tourism industry since the onset of coronavirus in March. But for masked-up tourists trickling back to the City, the fabled Alcatraz Island National Park holds its mystique.


Alcatraz Island reopened to the public in August, but with limitations. There are fewer available times, tours, and ferries; night tours are not happening currently; and the indoor cell block portion of the tour is also closed.


In September of last year, the number of Alcatraz visitors was 163,134, according to the National Parks Service. This September, the number of visitors was just 12,263, up from 7,447 the month prior.


Along with a few friends, I booked a tour for Nov. 2 to see how the virus has hit the beloved landmark⁠–⁠and whether visitors are returning in the age of coronavirus.


When you arrive at the pier to wait for your ferry, a security guard takes your temperature. If you have symptoms or fever, you will be denied entry to the roped-off waiting area of the ferry.


While you wait, staffers announce the basic protocol for the ferry trip: Wear a mask and wear a mask and social distance.


Ferries leave every 30 minutes, whereas during non-pandemic times they leave every 15 minutes. Only 150 people are allowed to board each ferry currently, which means that only 750 visitors can tour the island every day compared to the 5,000 to 6,000 in a typical summer month. Nonetheless, daily ferry trips are regularly selling out.


I boarded the ferry with my party at 3 PM and got to talk to a few tourists about why they also chose to make the journey that day.


Christine Menjaibar, a young woman from Kansas, was there with her father and her partner, who was visiting from Hawaii. She had come to the City from Kansas about a week prior, and had booked tickets within the last few days of arriving. During a “normal” time, this act would have been difficult as Alcatraz tickets are usually booked out months in advance.


“We were familiar with the Native American occupation and wanted to come out and check it out,” Menjaibar said about her desire to finally come to check out the island.


When asked how she felt about things so far safety-wise, Menjaibar replied, “I saw them sanitizing things and encouraging people to stay six-feet apart but that’s about it. I think it works out pretty great on the boat. It looks more than six-feet. Maybe ten-feet apart between each seat.”


She mentioned that she was a little bit nervous about things but was more confident in her immediate party: “We’re not messing with our masks or anything. We are pretty vigilant about that,” she said.


Another tourist on the boat that day was Earl James, who came with a partner and two children. The group was mixed with San Franciscans and company from Mexico. James, who is a longtime resident of the City who lives in North Beach, had never come out to the island. He and his party were jovial about the opportunity to go out for the day.


“We decided to come about two weeks ago. I’ve lived here forty years and never been here so I thought, I’ll go to Alcatraz on a nice Sunday afternoon and see what’s going on,” James said.


Tourists coming to Alcatraz during the pandemic can expect a far more hands-off distanced experience. While there are signs that folks can listen to an audio tour of the outside via an app, you are pretty much left to figure things out on your own. If you ask the information desk you will also be provided with a set of earbuds to keep to listen to things.


Rangers and park officials are happy to assist you⁠–⁠at a distance. They also can also issue $120 tickets if you try to enter restricted areas so don’t think the pandemic will be an excuse to break the rules⁠–⁠you are still in a National Park, even if you are also on former prison grounds.


Thankfully, there is still quite a bit of space for folks to roam around without much fear of being bottlenecked and in close proximity as folks were entering and exiting the boat. Once you get off the boat, though, you’re on your own when it comes to mask compliance.


For one group who came to Alcatraz that day, election day⁠–⁠set to take place the following day⁠–⁠was an excuse to hit the road.


Sherry Begley, a middle-aged woman came from San Antonio to the Island. She had never been here before. When I approached Begley, stating I was press, she was very nervous that I would be asking her political questions.


“I came here to get away from politics!” she said.


Begley and her party came to San Francisco to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of their daughter, and planned to visit Yosemite and Las Vegas after San Francisco.


“Originally we made plans in January to go on a cruise that was to leave October 31st, but that got cancelled so then we decided our best bet would be to come here, rent a car, drive through Yosemite and see nature along the way, then fly home from Vegas. We wanted to spend as much time as we could outside enjoying it,” she said.


Safety-wise, Begley mentioned numerous concerns about the process of things getting to Alcatraz: “Well like everything else, as you’re coming on, it was perfect,” she said. “They have their little things to keep your distance, but the second you get on the ship and you get off it, it’s chaos. It’s like that everywhere you go.”


The day was absolutely beautiful and clear. I said my goodbyes to Begley and continued on walking. While there were pockets of spaces where there were more people gathered, folks were quite spread apart for the most part on the island.


The next group I would chat with were three thirty-something male coworkers who were working in the environmental industry in Sacramento. They had come to Alcatraz from multiple parts of the country: Jose Lizarraga, who rocked a Dodgers hat was from Seattle. His coworker Robert Allen was from New York. The third, Freddie Navarro, was from New Jersey. The trio had never been to Alcatraz. Despite the drawbacks of closed-off areas, they were positive about the experience.


“We’re trying to break in.” Lizarraga joked.


“You always see about it on TV and on the news… all the history behind it. We wanted to experience it.” Navarro said about their decision to make the drive out that day. They’d made the decision to come last minute when Allen showed up two days prior.


The trio was not concerned about coronavirus, but they were disappointed that they were not able to tour the inside of the building. “We wanted the full experience. Pre-corona, you could go in the cells.” Allen said.


“I understand the COVID thing but we’re all on the boat with the COVID, so what’s the difference between going in a building and riding a boat.” Navarro opined. “You can go in separately in an orderly fashion. You don’t have to let everybody in.”


When asked if they felt that things had been explained to them, on the boat to the island, the trio mentioned that they felt the experience was a bit hampered by the presence of the virus. “It [the safety precaution discussions by staff] was really brief,” Lizarraga commented. “It was more so focused on the safety of the ‘rona rather than focusing on anything about the prison or the boat,” he continued.


Like me, they also felt aimless when they arrived as well. “We were just following the crowd. We picked up the little booklet. Follow directions. Just see what’s up.” Navarro said. Despite this, the trio was excited about their experience. “It sucks we can’t get in [to the prison] but it’s still cool. We are definitely going to come back.” Allen said with understanding.


On the way out, I did what many tourists do: I stopped at the gift shop. Due to the shop’s small size, there are restrictions on the number of folks who can go in at a time. I met one last group as I went to exit the gift shop: the Garza family, who visited the island from San Antonio, Texas. Like others on the tour, they also had never been to the island, and planned their trip two weeks in advance.


Jessica Garza was nervous for her family when she came. She was a bit comforted by the fact that they’d had the company of a local.


“It was a little scary at first. Trying to be safe and to keep my son safe. We know someone who lives here who was able to take us where we needed to go. During COVID it’s kind of nerve-wracking,”she said.


Like others who came out that day, the Garza family seemed mostly content with their trip to the island. She mentioned they would be returning as they had not been able to do everything they’d wanted while there. “The only disappointment was that we didn’t get to go inside to the cell area. He [her son] was kind of looking forward to that but we knew because they’d said that online that they weren’t going to let people in because of the virus.”


The last part of the trip was the boat back. Rangers rounded folks up around the island to ensure that they made the final ferry, which left at 5:25 PM. This early final departure is due to coronavirus.


As it was night and quite chilly, several visitors elected to fill the inner section of the boat. Folks were boisterous, loud, and not distanced much, presumably because of the cold and breeze of the Bay.


Overall, however, like many of the other tourists that I spoke to, it was an enjoyable experience on a pretty day.


That’s part of the allure that may bring more visitors back to the City eventually: Driven by increased domestic travel, San Francisco Travel Association expects 18.4 million visitors in 2021, though that’s still 30% lower than 2019.


The restrictions were a bit of a bummer, but not one person on the trip that I spoke to said that they regretted coming or wouldn’t be coming back. Perhaps this is one stop in the touristy pockets of the Bay Area that might be ok⁠–⁠but only for those mindful and willing to navigate responsibly.

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup
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