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Colorado’s governor advises going outdoors to ease coronavirus isolation. But take it easy, first responders plead.

People are getting cabin fever in the coronavirus crisis. But search and rescue crews worry adventurers in need may stress an overburdened system. “Everything is the backcountry now,” a SAR team member says.

Skiers Gary Fondl, left, and Blake Elrod skin up towards the Continental Divide Sunday, March 15, 2020, near Dillon. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jeff Sparhawk cruised around his hometown of Boulder on Wednesday and saw every local trailhead filled beyond capacity, with cars lining the streets outside parking lots. Those crowds make the longtime member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and president of Colorado Search and Rescue Board nervous

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“I think there’s a recognition from search and rescue that, yeah, people need to get out and they want to get out, and it’s healthy for people to get out. But at the same time, it needs to be done with prudence and recognition that search and rescue is part of the emergency response system and we might get stretched thin,” he said. “This is not the time to go after your bucket list. Please keep the big picture here in mind.”

As Colorado nears its first week of self-isolation as the state battles the spread of COVID-19, the jones to play outside will soon peak. In a state where small communities are launching points for most of the state’s playgrounds, that growing push to get outside has search and rescue teams and local health officials on edge.

That is especially true with all the Colorado ski areas closed and buried in new snow. Hundreds, if not thousands, of skiers are taking to the resorts to ski without the convenience of chairlifts.

“Please recognize that everything is the backcountry now,” Sparhawk said, noting that resorts will not be mitigating for avalanche hazards or patrolling slopes. “In reality, local search and rescue teams are not responsible for all the ski areas.”

Across the West, as states and communities hunker in isolation to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, the messages for recreation are mixed. Destinations that rely on visitors still have flashy videos streaming across websites, urging travelers to visit while local health officials beg outsiders to not just leave, but to turn around.

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Rocky Mountain National Park has closed most of its facilities and amenities. But then the Interior Department on Wednesday waived entrance fees to both National Park Service properties and Bureau of Land Management areas. (Where, it should be noted, local search and rescue teams are either the lead or back-up for any rescue missions.)

“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a prepared message.  

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group of 1,700 current and former employees of the park service, did not like that move.

A backcountry skier ascends in the Snodgrass Mountain trail area near Crested Butte on Jan. 26, 2019, carrying avalanche gear and a rescue beacon. The area is beautiful, but also prone to big snow slides that can capture and kill skiers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks,” reads a statement from the coalition’s chairman Phil Francis. “It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has not closed any parks as of March 19, but the agency is closing visitor centers (Sylvan Lake) and regional offices (Glenwood Springs.) (Click here for updates on CPW closures. )

Jefferson County Open Space also has not closed any parks, but the agency has closed facilities like its headquarters and the nature center on Lookout Mountain. Local reports from county rangers indicate Jefferson County’s trails were crowded this week.

Click here for updates on Jefferson County Open Space closures.

Gov. Jared Polis has encouraged state residents to get out for hikes and bike rides. Mountain communities are asking that Front Range residents play closer to home as this pandemic rages across high-country destinations with higher-than-average infection rates. 

The American Alpine Club is urging its mountain-climbing members to limit recreation-based travel. 

“If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for ‘social distancing,’” reads the Golden-based club’s latest missive to its climbers. “While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.”

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In Utah’s desert, where mountain residents often venture to escape winter, city officials in Moab are asking travelers not to come. The doctors at the 17-bed Moab Regional Hospital this week sent a letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asking him to close non-essential businesses in the Moab area, which was bracing for as many as 6,000 visitors this weekend. 

The Southeast Utah Health Department on Tuesday closed all lodging and sit-down restaurants in Utah’s Grand, Carbon and Emery counties for at least 30 days. The department’s ruling also banned camping by any nonresidents. Polis this week ordered all the state’s restaurants and gathering places closed while Summit, Gunnison, Chaffee and San Miguel counties took the mandate a step further and ordered all short-term lodging properties closed. Eagle and Pitkin counties are allowing hotels to remain open. 

So travelers who are heading west out of the Front Range need to be self-sufficient — as in able to prepare their own meals and arrange their own accommodations. Summit County on Thursday warned drivers they may have to ride the storm out in their car if the highways close and they get trapped in the county. 

“So please, do extra homework and dial it back quite a bit,” Sparhawk said. 

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