San Simeon, Calif. — One recent morning, a dozen Barbary sheep started to shamble across the main road to Hearst Castle, then stopped in the middle.
And why not? They hadn’t seen a loaded tour bus on that road since March.
As the state wages a seesaw battle against the coronavirus, the castle’s keepers confront the challenge of reopening a historic site that depends on bus transportation and has no air filtration system. Nobody is sure when California’s most famous mansion will reopen, including Dan Falat, superintendent of the California State Parks district that includes the castle.
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The castle stands about 230 miles northwest of Los Angeles, halfway to San Francisco, a location that helped, until now, make it a prime tourist attraction for decades.
At its Roman Pool, where 1,800 tourists per day no longer pass by, the freshly scrubbed tiles have never looked bluer. In most of the compound’s 165 artifact-filled rooms, there’s less dust than usual — because, as curator Toby Selyem explained, there aren’t visitors shedding dead skin as they shuffle past.
The castle’s museum director, Mary Levkoff, retired in July with no successor named so far.
Another awkward detail about the castle: “We happen to be in the middle of our 100th anniversary right now,” said Falat, sounding like a groom whose bride has run off with the caterer. “We were actually getting ready to kick it off in April.”
But like millions of other homeowners who have been filling their pandemic days with long-postponed household projects, the team on the Hearst Castle hilltop has a long list of chores.
Workers are trying to revive and clone an ailing oak tree, to replace rusted iron with stainless steel wherever possible, to power-wash tiles, to pluck ash from pool filters.
They’re also trying to calculate how many COVID-era tourists can safely fit on a 54-seat bus — perhaps 13? maybe 27? — and how many can stand in the grand Assembly Room where publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst once rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Harpo Marx, Joan…