The weekend before the statewide stay-at-home order, the roads around Vallecito Lake were filled with cars, some with out-of-state license plates.
“When you have people from Vegas walking into the store ... saying, ‘We need to stock up. We’re going to ride it out here,’ – that’s not local people,” said Lisa Bourque, a Vallecito Lake resident.
Community members grew concerned that the influx of visitors would affect the health and safety of the lake community during the COVID-19 outbreak. They hoped to follow San Juan County’s “locals only” policy, which permits law enforcement to ticket non-local residents for using the backcountry – a policy that has been questioned for its constitutionality. Vallecito residents have instead opted to set up a neighborhood watch.
“The community culture up here is very much people look out for each other,” Bourque said. “It’s always been that way.”
The small community sits on the shores of a reservoir, about 18 miles northeast of Durango. Its economy and community swells in the summer as seasonal residents return to their summer homes.
But community members are concerned that those homes are vulnerable while their owners are out of town. Bourque heard reports of people squatting in RVs nearby, hoping to ride out the coronavirus epidemic in the rural area.
If community members need to call the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, it can take law enforcement up to 40 minutes to arrive, Bourque said.
Retired seasonal residents would be vulnerable to severe cases of the illness if they did return to the community.
Concerned about supplies, the two stores still open near the lake focused on supplying the local community, Bourque said. Visitors could strain those resources.
They thought a “locals only” policy could help, but to no avail.
San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad closed backcountry access after initially issuing a “locals only” policy prohibiting backcountry recreation to non-local residents.
The closure aims to minimize the chance that first responders will be called to a backcountry rescue while simultaneously dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the closure, the Sheriff’s Office could issue fines and tow vehicles.
“We were really hoping we could do something like that in Vallecito,” Bourque said.
The Sheriff’s Office isn’t ready to enact a similar policy for Vallecito.
“Right now, we are enforcing orders that are already in place,” wrote Sgt. Chris Burke, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, in a news release. “We are also handling day-to-day calls for service.”
The next step is to hear back from the governor’s office about additional closures. The ticketing would cause a huge strain on manpower at this time, Burke wrote.
“When it comes to police presence, it’s better than it used to be. I think we’re all realizing that the staff ... they can only do so much,” Bourque said.
Colorado expects COVID-19 cases to reach a critical point near the end of April, said Bourque, who is also a board member with the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District. Then, first responders, law enforcement and hospitals could be overburdened.
Almost 100 Vallecito community members, joined by La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff and Upper Pine Fire Chief Bruce Evans, held a meeting March 27 to discuss possible solutions.
One solution was a growing neighbor-to-neighbor program in eastern La Plata County communities.
A person can volunteer to look over their particular street or neighborhood as part of a network of designated volunteers ready to help when needed.
If the county is in a dire situation, communities are prepared to take on leadership roles and help provide for some needs.
“We’re just out here in a rural part of Colorado,” Bourque said. “We’re being proactive to make sure that we are ahead of the game should anybody need some help.”