About 15 people gathered in clustered groups at Paradise Beach, a well-known hangout across the river from Durango High School. Some groups kept to themselves on rafts or blankets, while another stood in a loose circle on the beach. Occasionally, someone would move from one group to another. One person wore a face covering.
“Durango feels like a bit of a safe haven. We’re just trying to stay smart about it, but not completely limiting ourselves to staying in the house,” said Gabriel Garcia, a Durango resident, while hanging out Saturday on Paradise Beach.
While a few outdoor spaces in Durango, like Paradise Beach, have prompted concerns about social-distancing compliance, most people seem to be successfully social-distancing in outdoor areas, said 10 park visitors interviewed last weekend by The Durango Herald. As the summer tourism season begins, both members of the public and law enforcement hope the trend continues.
“Most of the people I see tend to be observant of social distancing,” said Wendy Wolsleger, a nurse who cycles weekly along the Animas River Trail. “Because we’re a more rural town, we’re a lot safer here, and that’s good – I’d like to keep it that way.”
Public health guidelines urge individuals to stay 6 feet apart both indoors and outdoors in response to the coronavirus. If the distance isn’t possible, a recent city of Durango order said masks are mandatory.
Visitors at Santa Rita Park, Buckley Park and the green spaces near 32nd Street and East Third Avenue were clustered on blankets in their own groups with abundant space for social distancing. Not everyone wore masks, but many had them ready to put on, around their necks, or were even wearing them while riding bikes.
Wolsleger and her husband, Fred, said their main concern was tourists coming in from areas with more intense outbreaks, like northern New Mexico.
“I think people are trying to get away, so they’re coming up here,” Fred said. “They’ve got some pretty severe counties down there, so that’s concerning.”
Mia Sholes, 12, was more concerned about supermarkets than parks, she said while carrying a stuffed monkey wearing a mask.
Mia’s father, a battalion chief with the Durango Fire Protection District, said he’s less concerned about the virus while outdoors.
“I know how the virus travels,” he said. “I wouldn’t go picnic in the park with a whole group of people. You can stay socially distant, but you’re going to touch the same surfaces. ... I just think that’s part of what we shouldn’t be doing.”
People seem to be compliant on the city’s trail system, said Mary Monroe Brown, executive director of Trails 2000. Early on, the group received reports that people were congregating at trailheads, but those reports have dropped off.
“When we look at our connection to the outdoors, I think the ability to get outside – and how it benefits our mental, physical and social health – has really got to be weighed into all of it during these unprecedented times,” she said.
Enforcing public healthThe Durango Police Department logged 155 public health compliance reports from March 23 to May 19 about social distancing in outdoor and indoor areas. Officers initiated 91 compliance reports, issued 12 warnings and have taken no criminal action.
“Most people are doing a great job, but we have a few that are making it very challenging for us,” said Bob Brammer, Durango police chief. “This is putting undue pressure upon the police department to respond to all these calls across the board when we still have some very serious crimes going on.”
Brammer said most complaints originated at south City Market, Home Depot and 550 Tattoo. Law enforcement determined some complaints were unfounded, particularly if members of the public complained after misinterpreting public health guidelines.
“It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, a lot of it’s perception and education,” Brammer said.
Outside, bike trails have been problematic. The department received “a multitude” of complaints about mountain bike trails in Horse Gulch. The Durango skatepark, Oxbow Park and Preserve, Animas River Trail and the Animas River corridor through Durango also generated concern.
“(The river corridor) is the one we’re really having a hard time with right now,” Brammer said. Social distancing on a boat is “almost impossible,” and people are stopping on Paradise Beach.
“They’re drinking and gathering there. That’s problematic,” he said. “People need to take some onus upon themselves to mitigate the potential spread. … We don’t want to peak out again.”
Garcia and others at Paradise Beach said they take social distancing seriously. People try to maintain 3 to 5 feet between each other, and if too many people are there, they leave. In Garcia’s social group, people might greet each other with hugs if they haven’t seen each other for a long time, but otherwise keep to themselves.
But the group had seen people, mostly teenagers, try to party then get shut down by the police.
“It’s pretty scary to see people that aren’t taking it seriously,” Garcia said. “This is our home, and we don’t want to see everybody stuck inside.”
Brammer said the police department is focusing on educating the public to gain compliance – and in most situations, it has worked. If people do their part by wearing masks and social distancing, the police department can focus on more serious crimes, he said.
“If everybody’s doing their part, then we’re gonna get through this together,” Brammer said. “The last thing that we need is our community turning on each other for any of this. Let’s be civil. We’re neighbors.”