The story WAS supposed to be about this bar in Yosemite that never shut down.
It immediately morphed into Trump, “RAY-CISSSS!” and nooses.
While totally neglecting to mention what Mexicans did when they raided Texas and California. Or that they held Indians in slave-like status.
If you think this reporter went in there with no agenda you’re an idiot.
It also openly defied the regional stay-at-home order to shut down in December, and its regulars are known to be gun ownership-advocating, COVID-19-denying Trump supporters. And not just one, but several, nooses are hanging around the property.
I know this because I went.
Near the entrance, a noose hung plainly from a lamp post, and signs on the building’s facade supported the State of Jefferson and the bar’s right to stay open regardless of COVID-related regulations. “We are not infringing on anyone’s inalienable rights,” one poster reads. “Your health is your responsibility.”
Inside, there’s a Donald Trump banner and placards that say things like, “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty!” in addition to an eclectic collection of old road signs, dollar bills, horseshoes, old-timey photographs and other Americana. In the game room, near the pool table and a jukebox that was playing Johnny Cash, I observed two additional, dangling nooses.
It was shocking, and I knew I would have to ask the bar’s co-owner Robbie Nelson about it.
But first, I’d need to find a safe space to do it. The bar had begun to fill up with long-time Mariposa residents who are all about freedom and God. They were not wearing masks, and they were hugging each other hello, which I had not seen anyone do in as long as I could remember.
Nelson greeted me in jet black eyeliner, her hair pulled half back revealing a gruff countenance. It seemed crucial that I order more than a drink, and when I asked for a recommendation, she suggested the cabbage soup. It arrived warm and chunky, with fruit, vegetables, half a boiled egg and a moist slice of cake on the side.
I complimented Nelson on her cooking and asked her if she was up for an interview with a news reporter about the bar. She granted one a few months back to the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGATE and the Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another), and she had been vocal back then about her refusal to close down the bar during the stay-at-home order. But I had heard she wasn’t pleased with how the story came out, and assumed she’d decline this time.
To my surprise, Nelson was happy to talk.
The bar has been around since the 1940s, and Nelson took it over in 2009, she told me. Since then, it’s become the go-to spot for local revelry and comfort food, with a frontier town vibe that tends to transport a person to a bygone era.
“Does anyone ever wear masks in this bar?” I asked Nelson.
She laughed. “No, they don’t,” she said. But they have the right to, she said, and if somebody shows up wanting to wear a mask and doesn’t have one, she gives them out for free.
The other thing Nelson doesn’t enforce is the capacity rule, she said. For the past few weeks and up until Tuesday, when Mariposa moved into the orange tier, the county’s COVID statistics placed it in the red tier, meaning restaurants could offer indoor dining at 25% capacity. But Nelson didn’t see why she should comply.
“If somebody’s unhappy with it, they can call my lawyer,” Nelson said. “I’m not giving up. If I give up then all I’ve done is absolutely for nothing.”
According to Mariposa County’s Public Health Officer Eric Sergienko, the county’s environmental health unit visited Airport Bar on multiple occasions recently and issued cease and desist orders in an attempt to “ensure compliance with state guidelines.”
“Last time they said, ‘Robbie, you’re going to have to shut down,’” Nelson said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not. I refuse.’”
“They said: ‘Well, we’re going to fine you and take your food license,’” she said.
“And I said, ‘You do what you have to do. You tell Dr. Sergienko — Fauci Jr. is what I call him — that if he promises to pay my bills every single month — and that’s my ABC license, my business tax, my property tax, my PG&E, my propane — I’ll be more than happy to comply with his wishes,’” Nelson said. “Until then, I have to work to pay my bills.”
The county health department turned the matter over to District Attorney Walter Wall, who told SFGATE that he had arranged meetings with Nelson, as well as the owners of other noncompliant local businesses, including Steve’s Sportsmans Cafe and Happy Burger Diner.
When Nelson refused to shut her business down, Wall filed civil action citing unfair business practices, he told SFGATE. “Other restaurants were fully complying,” Wall said. “If you take advantage of the market by violating the law, that’s an unfair business practice. I feel we have to have a level playing field.”
Nelson stood to face penalties of $2,500 per violation per day, Wall said, but then California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the stay-at-home order. The business owners agreed they’d come under compliance with the new guidelines, Wall told SFGATE, so he let the prior violations slide.
“If evidence is presented to me from environmental health that they are still out of compliance, I would do my part to make certain they do the right thing,” Wall said.
Sergienko drove by Airport Bar on Saturday, he said, and noticed a bunch of motorcycles parked out front. It looked like the place was definitely more than 25% full.
“My hands are tied, and we’ve done our due diligence,” Sergienko said. “I would just feel bad if [Nelson] were to have a case, or worse, if a super-spreader event started there from a single motorcyclist. That’s what we’ve seen in other restaurants.”
Sergienko worries in particular about Nelson herself, who has spoken openly about her health issues. She has asthma and COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease, and her husband Tom — who co-owns the bar — has had a triple bypass surgery and also has COPD, she told SFGATE.
Nelson has a slipped disc and no cushion on a number of her vertebrae, for which she was hoping to have surgery. But she put it off, she said, because she worries that if she’s away from the bar too long, public health officials might find a way to shut it down.
She hasn’t applied for any business loans, she said, because she didn’t want to take on debts she couldn’t repay.
“I’m not doing this to be disrespectful or anything like that,” she said. “I’m doing it because what’s right is right.”
Regulars Suzanne and Gordon Hicks are supportive of how Nelson fought to keep the bar open. “I don’t believe in [COVID-19],” Gordon Hicks told me.
“We know people who have had it and they’ve been fine,” Suzanne Hicks said. She also knows that people with underlying health issues are at higher risk, she said, and places herself in that category, because she has lung cancer.
Instead of shutting herself in, though, she said, she’s maximizing her time. “Life is too short for me not to have interaction with other people,” she said. “I need that for my happiness, for my health. For my sanity, period.”
“If it’s my time, it’s my time. It’s God’s will,” she added.
As of today, more than 527,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
While Airport Bar may try to bring the spirit of the Wild West and that era may be romantic to some, it isn’t for everyone. For people of color, the good old days in Mariposa were traumatic. The town’s history is inextricably linked with racism, to the point that Black people used to avoid stopping there; not a single business in the county ever made the Green Book, a travel guide that listed safe places for people of color during the Jim Crow era. Mariposa has always been a predominantly white county, with the most recent census showing that in 2019 just over 89% of the population was white.
It took me almost two weeks to find the nerve to call Nelson and ask about the nooses, and it turned out she did have an explanation. Sort of.
“Those are from the Clampers,” she said.
The Clampers, otherwise known as E Clampus Vitus, are a boozy men’s group dedicated to absurdism and the history of the American West, with Gold Rush-era roots. The group has certain bars it fraternizes in all over California, and according to Mariposa County Supervisor Marshall Long, who is a Clampers member and a diehard fan of Airport Bar, the nooses are meant to scare new inductees during initiation.
Much like the controversial Placerville logo, which depicts a noose hanging from a tree, and the town’s long-standing nickname “Hangtown,” these nooses are a nod to frontier justice in the Old West. “They have NO racial connotations,” Long wrote in an email.
But while not all lynchings in the Old West were racially motivated, quite a few were. Between 1848 and 1859, 149 Mexicans were lynched by mobs in California, and in 1871 — in what’s been described as one the largest mass lynchings in American history — an estimated 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants were brutally killed and hanged by a white and Hispanic mob in Los Angeles.
When I asked Nelson if the troubling association between nooses and the racially motivated lynchings of people of color had ever come up in the bar, she said it hadn’t.
“Nobody ever questioned me about it,” she said.