Boulder Community Hospital nurse Ernest Illo and his wife grew anxious that the COVID-19 outbreak would soon creep from Illo’s work into their Gunbarrel condo and infect their 5-year-old son.
When the virus started spreading across the country, many medical front-line workers moved out of their homes to shelter in motels, or at the homes of co-workers or friends in an effort to keep the virus away from their families.
But Illo’s wife took a different route. As soon as the virus began to appear in Boulder, she got an RV from one of several groups that offered the vehicles as a safe way to self-isolate while parked in front yards and driveways.
“It just seemed a safer way to keep my family healthy while still being close to them,” said Illo, who was able to park his borrowed RV in the condo’s parking lot. ““It was a great solution for us.”
The condo manager quickly agreed to allow Illo to bring in the RV when they learned he was a front-line worker helping with COVID-19 patients. Still, the condo owners were wary about letting him stay too long. All told, Illo lived in the 19-foot-long RV for about five weeks before he got a one-room apartment through Boulder Community Hospital.
“I had to update them on what’s going on and what the future may bring,” Illo said.
RVs to house frontline medical workers quickly became a feel-good story during the COVID-19 outbreak. But it comes with a twist.
Dealers and grassroots groups trying to temporarily shelter medical workers in RVs during the virus spread often face barriers thrown up by wary cities and neighborhoods. Many restrict how long recreational vehicles can be parked in residential settings, with many only allowing RV parking for up to 72 hours.
The limits were prompted by complaints from residents who say RV users dump litter, sewage and other debris on public streets. Many homeowners also object to the size of some RVs, saying a 30-foot motorhome does not fit well in a residential setting.
But some Colorado cities have eased restrictions on RVs parking on residential streets for long periods during the COVID-19 outbreak as long as there is proof the vehicles are housing medical personnel. But the leniency will last for just so long.
“The City of Centennial is being flexible in the enforcement of RV regulations pertaining to occupancy and duration within the right-of-way as long as it can be demonstrated the purpose is related to COVID-19,” city spokeswoman Allison Wittern said. “This flexibility in regulations is temporary and no new regulations will be adopted.”
Weld County recently suspended a section of the county code which limits the amount of time an individual may stay in an RV to accommodate medical workers.
“We realize our first responders and health care workers may need an alternative to living in their homes as they are trying to minimize their exposure to family members,” Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. “Allowing those who live in unincorporated Weld County to live in their RVs for this purpose makes sense and is something we can easily help our families.”
Long-standing grudges against RVs quickly become obstacles to groups like the Recreational Vehicle Advisor Consumer Association, a Delaware-based advocacy group for RV owners. The organization is working to provide RVs to health care professionals working in the COVID-19 crisis.
Gigi Stetler, CEO and founder of the RVACA, said RVs have been unfairly targeted by critics even as they now keep doctors, nurses, and other health care workers and their families safe from the coronavirus.
“I think it is just ridiculous,” Stetler said. “The restrictions they often put up don’t make sense, especially since most RV owners are law-abiding, sensible people. And even today, they are making it even tough at a time when RVs are needed now more than ever to help people.”
Stetler personally pays for an RV’s daily rental so they can be loaned out to health care workers through the association’s dealers across the country at no cost to the recipients. “I am going to have a heck of a credit card bill at the end of the month, but I won’t mind,” she said. “I am helping out the RV industry and I am helping out our first responders.”
Jesper Sahlberg, who owns Rocky Mountain RV and Camper Rental in the Denver Tech Center, is a member of Stetler’s group and is trying to place three RVs with medical workers in Colorado.
Placement is often complicated because of constraints placed on the vehicles in subdivisions, Sahlberg said. Sahlberg is trying to get an RV to a health care worker in Grand Junction, for example, but is meeting resistance because she lives in a cul-de-sac and residents are not happy having an RV as a neighbor.
“It’s frustrating,” Sahlberg said. “I am busy trying to get these RVs placed, but there is not much progress.”
Sahlberg was able to get the RV to Illo in early March. The camper included a small dinette, microwave, two beds and a shower. The RV resided in the parking lot of the Powderhorn Gunbarrel apartment complex where his family lives just a few yards away.
He helped with his son’s homework while living a spartan existence in the RV. “It was nice and simple and had everything I needed,” Illo said.
The grassroots group RVs 4 MDs learned quickly they needed to consider local rules governing RVs parking on public streets before they began their venture in March, Shelly Roehrs, spokeswoman for the Colorado chapter for RVs 4 MDs, said. The local group has matched 27 health workers with RVs since March.
RVs 4 MDs hooks up RV owners willing to donate their vehicles to medical workers and first responders who need temporary shelter. The group includes over 27,000 members and has matched 1,346 frontline workers in the United States, Canada and Dubai.
“One thing we had to consider with municipalities was the size of the RVs we could use,” Roehrs said. “Not everybody can accommodate a 30-foot RV in their neighborhoods. Just because we have an RV available, doesn’t mean it will fit within neighborhood restrictions.”
Still, many HOAs and cities were willing to “bend the rules a little bit” once COVID-19 began spreading into their communities, Roehrs said. The need for safe housing for hospital and clinical workers became a top priority, Roehrs said.
The campers most medical workers got were also relatively small, which makes it easier to shoehorn them into a neighborhood, she said.
“For the most part, people have been very accommodating,” Roehrs said. “There is just a little bit of negotiation involved.”
Alan Pollack was able to park his borrowed fifth-wheel in his long driveway and off the street in his Lakewood neighborhood. Pollack worked as a cardiovascular technologist at Rose Medical Center before he was moved to the ICU in March to tend to COVID-19 patients.
His wife put in an application with RVs 4 MDs and the RV arrived in early April. Pollack moved in and celebrated his 40th birthday within its confines.
Pollack said the RV, while not exactly home, eases fears he will spread the virus to his wife and two young children.
“This has been huge,” Pollack said. “It’s helped keep me and my wife from worrying so much about putting our family’s life in jeopardy.”
He talks to his wife and kids through the RV’s screen door and windows, while he is out in the driveway and by telephone. “It’s certainly not like being there in person, but we make it work.”
Pollack said he might even consider buying an RV when the coronavirus crisis has eased and he’s allowed back into his home. “I have always been a tent-camper kind of guy, but this RV has not been bad,” he said.
RVs are being used in other ways besides housing for medical workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. As many as 1,300 RVs were purchased by the state of California to shelter COVID-19 patients, and Louisiana bought 89 RVs for use as command centers for state police.
RVs coming to the rescue during the virus spread may ease the pain caused by COVID-19 on the recreational vehicle industry, Monica Geraci, senior manager for marketing strategy and operations for the RV Industry Association.
Shipments by RV manufacturers dropped by 20% in March, leading to factories shutting down and worker layoffs, Geraci said. “And we know April will be terrible,” she said.
The industry may come back stronger as people who weren’t RV users before, remember the utility of an RV during this health crisis, she said.
“I think people will realize that not only does an RV afford the freedom to go just about anywhere, but they can provide a safe shelter for the long haul,” she said. “RVs are proving to be a safe bet for a lot of people.”.