It’s more than understandable: You’ve been cooped up for weeks at home, the weather is getting nicer and you want to start getting out on your favorite trails around Southwest Colorado.
Recreating outside in the time of the coronavirus outbreak is not prohibited in La Plata County, but health experts and local officials are pushing strong recommendations for people going outdoors to reduce the spread of the disease.
“We do want our community to exercise and be able to get outside, but we want that done responsibly so they don’t put themselves or others at risk for COVID-19,” said Durango’s Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz.
The city’s park and trail system – including the Animas River Trail and the Durango Dog Park – remain open and have seen high use in recent weeks, Metz said. As a result, the city posted signs reminding people to stay 6 feet apart.
But, the city decided to close all its playgrounds, picnic areas and the Durango Skate Park – gathering places that increase the chance of people getting together and possibly spreading the virus.
Metz said officers with the Durango Police Department started this week traveling the city’s trails on bikes to remind people to follow social-distancing guidelines.
“Obviously, they are not out there to ticket people,” she said. “They are trying to get people to understand the importance of social distancing.”
Public lands within La Plata County also remain open, for the time being.
Eric Coulter with the Bureau of Land Management said public lands should be enjoyed, but being outside doesn’t mean best health practices and recommendations shouldn’t be followed.
“Getting outdoors can be a great way to practice social distancing and get some fresh air, but please do it safely and responsibly,” he said.
The message to antsy outdoor enthusiasts has been to stay local, travel in small groups and avoid dangerous backcountry travel that could require emergency rescues, diverting important resources from the coronavirus response.
Esther Godson, a spokeswoman with the San Juan National Forest, said recreation areas without annual seasonal closures remain open, but the risk deep backcountry travel poses has the agency evaluating certain sites.
“COVID-19 poses unique and unprecedented risks to our workforce, visitors and communities we live in and support,” she said.
Indeed, La Plata County Search and Rescue President Ron Corkish said emergency response times are expected to be delayed because rescue personnel are treating every person in need as if they have the coronavirus.
That means before a mission can start in earnest, crews have to put on a host of protective gear against the virus, such as masks, goggles and gloves.
Corkish said it’s important for people in the backcountry to make safe and responsible decisions. A rescue takes up emergency responders’ time, and it usually lands the patient in the hospital, where there is a greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“People need to get out, they need fresh air and absorb the sunshine,” he said. “But you don’t need to go to Cascade Canyon and do your third time on an ice climb.”
La Plata Search and Rescue hasn’t had a full-on mission since the outbreak ramped up in early March. But, he said there’s been a notable increase in crowds up La Plata Canyon, and over toward Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs.
David Bruzzese, who serves on the board for Trails 2000, said the group is trying to spread much of the same message to its members.
“The vast majority who ride, hike or run on our local trails are community members, and I think people are taking it seriously,” he said. “The more we do to slow spread of the disease, the better off we’ll all be.”
Throughout the Four Corners, responses to the outbreak, in terms of outdoor recreation, have been varied.
To the north, San Juan County said it would start ticketing cars parked at trailheads of popular backcountry ski spots in an attempt to close those areas in case of emergencies. And to the west, Utah’s San Juan County closed travel to out-of-towners.
In Archuleta, La Plata and Montezuma counties, however, no restrictions have been put in place.
The city’s Metz said Durango’s parks and trails, for now, will remain open. But closing the areas is not off the table.
“If you look around the country, where the COVID outbreak is more extreme and putting the community at serious risk to overwhelm health care systems, they are closing public parks,” she said.
“We can’t think it won’t happen in Durango. That’s why people need to take social distancing seriously. Because if the outbreak gets bad, (closing trails) can happen. This is a privilege, not a right,” she said.