Rocky Mountain National Park became the state’s first national park to close to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, two days after the park’s top boss suspended entrance fees to all national parks.
The park announced late Friday that it is temporarily closing “until further notice,” following the request of Estes Park Mayor Todd Jirsa and the local health department.
The park had already closed entrances at Estes Park and to the west in Grand County early in the day due to more than a foot of new snow. Earlier this week it announced the closures of facilities inside the park.
“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at Rocky Mountain National Park is our number one priority,” reads the statement announcing the park’s indefinite closure.
Estes Park and Grand County both announced their first positive tests for COVID-19 on Thursday. On Friday, Jirsa sent an open letter to David Bernhardt, the Colorado native and secretary of the Interior Department who earlier this week waived entrance fees to national parks, hoping the move would encourage Americans to enjoy the outdoors as the country skids to a halt.
“I never thought in my entire life I would be asking for a national park to shut down,” Jirsa said Friday night as news of the rare park closure came down.
Rocky Mountain National Park hosted a record 4.67 million visitors in 2019, more than a 44% increase from 2012. More than 307,000 of those visits came in March and April. A record 255,000 people visited the park in January and February this year, up from 218,000 last year. In 2018, park visitors spent an estimated $306 million in gateway communities including Estes Park. That spending supported 4,360 jobs, creating an economic impact of $464 million, most of that in Estes Park.
Colorado’s dozen national park properties saw visitors spend $497 million in gateway communities in 2018.
Bernhardt called shortly after Jirsa sent his letter.
“We had a very good conversation and I think he’s really interested in following the direction of local public health directors,” said Jirsa, who has lived in Estes Park since 1983. “He is familiar with Estes Park and wants to make data-driven decisions. He wants to understand the specifics of each of these parks.”
Jirsa gave him specifics. He told Bernhardt that health officials in Larimer County, where as of Friday, 10 people had tested positive for COVID-19, were encouraging park visitors to not drive through the county. He spoke about concerns of the director at the local hospital, which might be unable to care for injured visitors pulled from the park. He noted how his town has a large population of older residents.
“We have a number of people at risk in this town and while we have great medical services, they could be overwhelmed,” Jirsa said.
Jirsa said Bernhardt wanted to keep the park open, “like we all do.”
“But we need to get through this COVID crisis. Let’s flatten this curve, and the quicker we do that the quicker we will be back,” Jirsa said. “We will come out the backside and we will be stronger.”
Earlier on Friday, California’s Yosemite National Park also closed in response to requests from local health authorities.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:37 a.m. on March 21, 2020, to correct that Rocky Mountain National Park is Colorado’s first national park property to close, not the nation’s.