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Escape To Public Lands? Nearby Towns Want You To Park It Instead.

Photo of trees and a cliff side at Zion National Park
Nate Hegyi
Zion National Park and other crown jewels of the country's public lands system offer a respite during the COVID-19 pandemic. But getting there can lead to new cases of the novel coronavirus in rural towns that are unprepared to handle a surge in patients.

On a recent cold and rainy morning at Zion National Park in Southern Utah, Andrew Smith and Blake Cubria throw a blue tarp on top of their tent to keep the water out. They’re in the midst of an impromptu vacation out West that began after they both lost their restaurant jobs in Chicago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just packed up,” Smith said. “We’re kind of spontaneous. We hit the road and drove through Colorado and Utah and checked out the landscape.”

They’ve never been in the West before and they wanted to see the mountains. Besides, it beat being holed up in Chicago worrying about COVID-19.

“We’re just trying to enjoy our life and not freak out too much,” Smith said. “Spend a week up in the parks and then go back home and hopefully everything goes back to normal.”

These guys aren’t alone. As the novel coronavirus spreads across the country, many folks are flocking to the outdoors. The Trump administration has even made national parks, national monuments and other popular recreation areas free during the pandemic. 

This instinct to “head for the hills” during a pandemic makes sense, according to David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. 

“One of the reasons people are probably escaping is that they’re getting back to their evolutionary history,” said Strayer.

We humans evolved in natural spaces so being in them is good for our mental health, especially during a crisis. 

“Walking around, smelling the fresh air, having the sunlight — our bodies very clearly react to that in terms of the light, in terms of reductions in stress,” he said. “We can measure that very clearly.”

But you also don’t have to travel far to receive the benefits of nature during the pandemic, Strayer said. A long walk outside or a hike in the nearby foothills can do the trick. 

Still, a continuous stream of tourists are driving hundreds of miles to visit public lands and national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands near Moab, Utah — much to the chagrin of local health officials, who are worried about out-of-towners bringing COVID-19. 

“I just really, strongly encourage people — don’t take this as a vacation, take it as a pandemic,” said Dylan Cole, chief medical officer at Moab Regional Hospital. 

Visiting national parks does not lend itself to social distancing, much less self-quarantine, especially when it requires traveling for hours in a car, Cole stresses. Visitors are stopping for gas, grabbing food at grocery stores and potentially bringing the novel coronavirus to rural gateway communities — areas that often don’t have a lot of medical equipment or enough hospital beds to take care of a surge in patients. So Cole is urging tourists to stay at home — even some of his own friends and family. 

“I’ve had people that know me from all over texting or reaching out and saying, ‘Wait, does this mean I’m not supposed to come down there for my biking trip?’ And it’s like, ‘Uh, that’s exactly what it means,’” he said. 

Local health officials in the Moab area have ordered hotels, restaurants and bars to shutter and banned camping on public and private lands surrounding the town. Some local national park superintendents in the region have restricted services and even closed their park’s gates altogether. 

But as of March 23, the gates of Zion National Park — which sees millions of visitors every month — remained open. 

College student Sam Barker was there with his friends hiding from the rain underneath a wooden shelter. They’re from Atlanta and began their trip out West before the pandemic got really serious in the U.S. Now Barker is worried about flying home and potentially infecting his parents. 

“I think after this trip I’m not going back to my house where my parents are,” he said. “I’m probably going straight to my apartment, which is a couple of hours away, and quarantine.”

But other visitors weren’t as concerned about COVID-19. 

“I refuse to bow to the fear,” said Kristi Anderson. “Let’s just go and enjoy creation and remember how big God is because he’s bigger than whatever nonsense is going on.”

Anderson and her family travelled to Zion from Durango, Colo. She’s putting her faith in God and doesn’t know whether the world is overreacting to the pandemic or not. 

“I have no idea,” she said. “It could be an overreaction, but what if it turns out to be as horrible as they all say it is? It could be a huge underreaction.” 

It’s important to note that people can be asymptomatic and still carry COVID-19. That’s why health experts are strongly urging everyone to stay away from the Mountain West’s overcrowded national parks. 

And again, as Strayer noted, you don’t need to head for the hills if you want a dose of the outdoors. 

“Nature is just right next door, if you look for it,” he said. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.

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