A scenic drive to Estes Park and a long hike in the crisp, clean spring air of the Rocky Mountains seemed like the perfect getaway for Colorado residents and tourists cooped up in their homes as businesses and restaurants shuttered across the state to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Realizing many Americans are facing difficult financial times but also want to stay active during the nationwide shutdown, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced March 18 that all national park fees would be waived. The $20 fee normally charged per car to enter national parks in Colorado would no longer be collected.
But as the coronavirus spread across the United States, local and federal governments moved to limit travel, not encourage it. Airlines canceled thousands of flights as Americans stayed home to limit the spread of the virus. Ski resorts, national monuments and entire cities have shut down.
Mesa Verde National Park announced Wednesday it is closing indefinitely to prevent the spread of the virus to its staff and visitors. Rocky Mountain National Park also closed last week, after the mayor of Estes Park and officials from Larimer County Public Health wrote to the Department of the Interior about their concern for the health of staff and local residents.
Cathy Kellogg, a resident of Greeley, is about an hour’s drive from Rocky Mountain National Park. Waiving the fee makes the national park more accessible for people who normally couldn’t afford it, but Kellogg said she “felt bad for the park rangers inundated with visitors.”
The closure “gives the park a break,” especially when it is not the high season and there are fewer workers, Kellogg said.
“The hospital at Estes Park is very small,” Kellogg said, “and does not have the capacity to care for visitors.” If people are traveling there and using the gas pumps, staying in cabins and interacting with park rangers, they could spread the virus to a remote community that will struggle to care for its permanent residents.
Kellogg said people should have the right to access the park once things are back to normal. But for now, she hopes people will stay home. During the government shutdown in 2018, trees in the national parks were ravaged because people let their children climb them, Kellogg said.
Maria Caffrey, a former National Park Service partner and current climate scientist at the University of Colorado, said many people are pointing to the previous government shutdown as a reason to keep the parks open. Without security from NPS, Joshua trees were destroyed and abused, and it will take centuries for them to grow back.
But this national park closure is the result of a virus, not a government shutdown, Caffrey said. There will be “ample security this time,” and the “parks will still remain safe if you close them,” she said.
But the increased visitation that comes with a fee waiver is “a huge health hazard for anyone thinking about congregating at these parks right now,” Caffrey said.
The trails are so tight, there is no way to maintain a 6-foot distance between people passing each other. When visitors engage with park rangers about trail conditions, they could exchange the virus, and it could spread among park rangers who interact with other visitors, Caffrey said.
Allowing people into parks for free during the coronavirus outbreak is a plan for disaster, Caffrey said. As someone who previously worked for the NPS, Caffrey said visiting parks without interacting with staff or other guests is impossible. She said Bernhardt’s decision to waive the fees was “incredibly naïve.”
“People in Washington are issuing these orders without knowing what the impact will be,” Caffrey said. Parks should use this time to catch up on maintenance, she said.
When Rocky Mountain National Park announced on social media that it would close, the reactions ranged from confusion to support. Locals cheered the park’s decision as one that would protect locals’ health, while other Coloradans questioned why the park would close when it gives people the opportunity to do something active to reduce stress.
But health experts say the coronavirus poses an outsized threat to small towns bordering the parks. Hospitals and medical staff are limited, and most EMS workers volunteer, according to physician and rural family doctor Sarah Hiam, who worked with Docs Who Care.
Rural community health centers are in some cases the only health care within a reasonable driving distance, and many don’t have an ICU, let alone the medical supplies needed to test and treat the coronavirus. People going to visit places like Estes Park from Denver may carry the virus with them, and it could continue to spread “like wildfire” throughout small towns in rural Colorado, Hiam wrote on Facebook.
Even if visitors don’t bring the coronavirus, they could break their ankle on a trail and not receive the care they need because medical staff is short. Estes Park has already identified cases of the virus in the area.
The park relies heavily on volunteers to help visitors, but “many of our amazing, dedicated volunteers are in the more vulnerable group of over 60 years of age,” according to a spokesperson. The park instead encourages people to use its webcams to view the Rocky Mountains.
As of Wednesday, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park remained open, but with limited access.
The Black Canyon and Crested Butte parks in Gunnison County ordered nonresidents, including people with second homes in the area, to return to their permanent residence last week.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado issued orders for non-locals to leave.
The bottom line is this: “Please bear all of this in mind when you consider whether to recreate in a faraway town,” Hiam writes. “I understand the urge to do so as much as anyone else, but your actions could affect many people.
“Please just stay home until this crisis ends.”
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.