Josh Berman, a Spanish teacher from Boulder, Colorado, had been looking forward to his rafting trip with his 12-year-old for more than a year. As a father of three daughters, he annually alternates taking each one on an outdoor adventure. This year’s 45-mile rafting trip on the Green River from Colorado to Utah was easily the most off-the-grid excursion yet, and he and his daughter could barely contain their excitement.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Berman immediately pulled out of the trip. He knew they would be traveling through tiny communities scattered around Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument, and he didn’t want to take the chance of bringing harm to them.
“I look at it this way: Instead of thinking about whether or not you’ll get infected, consider whether or not you’ll infect someone else,” he says of his decision. “When you flip it like that, it’s an easy choice.”
As the coronavirus rips across the country like wildfire, it’s easy to be lured by Mother Nature’s charms. And, why not – health experts and government officials have endorsed hiking’s healing power during these trying times. Last week Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt directed all national parks to waive their entrance fees until further notice. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors … to recreate, embrace nature, and implement social distancing,” Bernhardt said.
But as with all things during the age of covid-19, nothing is as it seems. In this case, walking into the wild can be irresponsible – and not the safety net we need it to be.
For one thing, yours isn’t the only stir-crazy family considering a road trip to your favorite public lands for some social distancing in the back country: Hordes of people have been spotted everywhere from California’s Point Reyes National Seashore to Maine’s Acadia National Park.
More importantly, the small gateway communities outside the national parks and popular public lands cannot handle your visit. Despite a lack of a federal mandate, some are asking everyone to go home.
Last week, the Southeast Utah Health Department ordered the closure of all campgrounds and lodging facilities around Moab, the gateway community to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. The mandate was directed toward recreational visitors who don’t reside within city limits. Prior to the order, the sleepy outdoor community had been expecting nearly 10,000 visitors – nearly double the town’s population. This is standard for spring in Moab, but this year is obviously different.
“Our local health-care system is built to handle the day-to-day needs of our resident community along with the occasional surges that comes from tourist events like bike races or marathons,” said Bradon Bradford, the director of the department. “We don’t have the beds and we don’t have the equipment here to handle more than that, and especially not the type of patients the virus would bring.”
Moab isn’t the only community asking people to stay away. On March 16, Gunnison County in Colorado – home to Crested Butte and adjacent to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park-issued a public order that mandated nonresidents return home immediately. Nonresidents who own second homes in the county were “strongly encouraged” to leave and return to their permanent residence.
“It’s simple: We’re closed for your hiking business right now,” said Andrew Sandstrom, public information officer for the Gunnison County Incident Command Team.
The closures keep coming. On March 20, Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks (RMNP) all closed until further notice. On March 21, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado implemented a “locals only” order that prohibits nonresidents from backcountry skiing or recreating on any of San Juan County lands. A day later, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park closed all trails, public areas, roads, campgrounds, and the backcountry.
The Department of the Interior directed questions about waived fees and park closures to the National Park Service, which did not respond to request for a comment.
Many outdoor enthusiasts find the closures confusing, if not extreme, especially in light of Bernhardt’s recent announcement. A quick scroll on RMNP’s Facebook page shows comments like, “This is insane, we’re shutting down the outdoors now!” But Katie Boué believes most hikers and campers just don’t realize their impact.
“A lot of us don’t fully understand all those touch points we hit along the way,” said the founder of the Outdoor Advocacy Project, a benefit corporation (these are for-profit businesses committed to creating public benefit) designed to empower the outdoor community to do good. “You touch your car and then the handle on the gas pump, and then you get to the park and grab a pamphlet from the donation box that may or may not have been put back by the previous user, and then you drink from your water bottle. All those touch points add up and that’s how the virus spreads.”
Frank Zadravecz, an epidemiologist and emergency medicine resident physician at the University of Utah, agrees with Boué. With packed trails and parks comes a higher risk of infection, thanks to the virus’s ability to live on various surfaces for extended periods of time. According to Zadravecz, the medical community agrees that SARS-CoV-2 droplets remain viable in air for up to three hours. However, he says it’s unlikely that you’ll just walk through an infected air cloud while out hiking.
“More likely, (the virus) is being transmitted by droplets with coughs or sneezes, and they only travel a short distance before being forced by gravity to land on surfaces,” he says. “Contact with the virus that has been spread from droplets on many types of shared public surfaces may actually present more of a threat than aerosols.”
Zadravecz adds that hiking itself is fine, but it’s the ripple effect that concerns him. “We need to keep those gateway communities as burden-free as possible,” he says.
The bottom line is this: Don’t use the coronavirus as an excuse to take a quarantine vacation. “We’ll be here when you come back later,” Bradford said. “But now is the time to find a gem in your own backyard.”
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How to responsibly recreate during the coronavirus outbreak
1. Stay local. Don’t travel to your favorite trail and certainly don’t cross state lines. If you can get to the trail by walking out your front door, all the better.
2. Find lesser-used trails. If you see the parking lot is packed with cars, go home and try another day.
3. Maintain a minimum of six feet of distance at all times, even if this means waiting in place on a trail for another hiker to pass.
4. If you feel unwell or have a cough and/or fever, don’t try to “hike it out.” Instead, follow CDC guidelines for staying indoors.
5. Support the small gateway communities that are desperately hurting right now. Consider purchasing a gift card at your favorite restaurant or prepay for a guided trip that you plan on taking next year. Call your best-loved local outdoor retailer and ask to place an online gear order to be shipped to your home.