The danger of self-isolating from COVID-19 on public lands

Gateway communities grow wary of out-of-town crowds.

 

Ski resorts have shuttered. Disneyland is closed. Professional sports have been canceled. For most of the United States, social events and attractions ranging from museum visits to music festivals have vanished. But despite nationwide warnings that people should stay at home and limit unnecessary outings, national parks and monuments have, for the most part, remained open. 

As a result, visitors desperate for activity and distraction have flooded into Moab, Utah, the gateway to Arches National Park. “We had crowds of people that felt like peak summertime,” said Ashley Kumburis, who manages a rafting and jeep tour outfitter thats still open. “If you didn’t know this contagious virus was spreading, you would think it was a regular summer day in Moab.” 

On March 16, doctors from Moab Regional Hospital sent a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert, R, asking for help. “We are writing this letter to implore you to shut down all non-essential business service in Moab,” it reads. Citing a lack of hospital beds and no local intensive care unit — at a time when lodging for the following weekend was estimated to be at between 75-95% capacity — officials were concerned that “tourism would drive the spread” of COVID-19. Within a few hours, the Southeast Utah Health Department issued an order closing restaurants and lodging, and camping on both public and private land to outside visitors. 

A crowd of photographers line up to capture the sunrise at Mesa Arch near Moab, Utah, in Canyonlands National Park on an early fall day in 2016.

Yet Arches National Park, which draws over 1.5 million visitors in an average year, remains open. And as of Wednesday, national parks across the country that are still open are now free. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stated in a press release. 

For people around the country, this is a confusing message. After hearing that outdoor spaces are the safest areas to avoid the spread of COVID-19, many are venturing out, seeking the sort of isolation that public lands offer. But when visitors start overwhelming gateway communities, the public lands are no longer a safe refuge. 

In Moab and other tourist-based towns , the message that their backyards are still open to out-of-town visitors is making both residents and park employees fear that their communities and workplaces could become the next COVID-19 hotspot. 

Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit located in Bluff, Utah, that runs a visitors center for Bears Ears National Monument, a popular climbing area, urged visitors to reconsider their travel plans. Citing a surge in camping and tourists after Moab closed itself to tourism, the group released a statement on Thursday. “This flood of visitors negatively impacts the sensitive landscape we strive to protect, but even more importantly, in a time of great uncertainty, an increase in visitation has the potential to put remote gateway communities at risk.”  

Sending people to parks means they’ll use the amenities in both the parks and in nearby towns. Grocery stores in the rural West, as in the rest of the country, are struggling to stay stocked, bathroom facilities will need cleaning, and the more visitors there are, the greater chance for injuries that might need to be treated in rural hospitals — hospitals that lack the capacity to treat them. 

Park employees are also concerned about being put in contact with possibly contagious crowds. One national park employee in Skagway, Alaska, quit on Wednesday, “citing inadequate precautions for keeping park staff from being exposed to coronavirus,” according to a local news report. “It is mind-boggling that an official with responsibility for all of the public lands that fall underneath the Interior is willing to risk his workforce to spin a message that everything is great, go to a national park,” said Joan Anzelmo a retired park superintendent and spokeswoman who served for 35 years with the agency in places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton. 

And that’s not all: “I’m especially worried about fire season right now,” Anzelmo told me. “NPS employees from all different backgrounds form a good part of the wildland firefighting workforce.” Anzelmo fears what will happen if those employees get sick or overworked while trying to keep parks open during a national emergency. “Do we want to exhaust that bench of the federal workforce in public lands right now for a momentary feel-good moment while a pandemic is raging, or do we want to be smart and be ready for the other emergencies that are going to happen?” 

Meanwhile, state parks are indicating that people can travel as long as their destination is the outdoors, putting other tourism-based towns at risk. Depoe Bay, Oregon, a town of approximately 1,500 that bills itself as the world’s smallest natural harbor, and Oregon’s state parks have remained open despite closing many visitor facilities and campgrounds. 

Tourists typically flock to Depoe Bay this time of the year to view the gray whale migration during the annual Spring Whale Watching Week, which was supposed to start on March 21. The park canceled the event and is continually announcing new measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Yet as long as the park remains open, visitors still feel encouraged to visit. “You can still enjoy this spring break tradition on your own,” its website reads, with a list of places people can see the whales

Local resident Kelly Fuller wants Oregon State Parks and Recreation to explicitly tell visitors to stay away. While Fuller understands that people want to get outside and breath some fresh air, it’s inevitable that they’ll wander into town to use the restroom and visit local businesses. “We have to not go buy knickknacks in cute shops. We have to stop doing that. Otherwise, a lot of people are going to die who don’t need to die,” Fuller said. “There are ways to go outside without traveling to another area.” 

Fuller herself has three relatives in the at-risk age category — all over the age of 70— currently sealed up at their homes in town. “I’m running around in the outside world shopping for them,” Fuller said. “The least the state can do is close everything nonessential and tell people to stay in their homes; don’t come down to these small towns on the coast,” Fuller said. 

And Depoe Bay may be at greater risk than other gateway communities. The town has a large population of retirees, many of them at an age where getting sick with COVID-19 could mean hospitalization or death. In response, the local clinic is no longer accepting walk-ins, instead fielding patient concerns by phone appointments only. The clinic has set up a tent outside and a mobile health unit for patient testing. 

As Depoe Bay, like the rest of the country, prepares for a possible onslaught of COVID-19 cases, Fuller wants visitors to reconsider coming and unknowingly infecting her small community. “People can come back in the summer when things are better,” she said. “But not now.”

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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