Analytical as they are, Connor McCormick and his friends from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs took their own dive into data before the coronavirus outbreak swept the nation.
“We were watching the graphs and doing the math,” McCormick said. “We started thinking, ‘This is gonna be really bad.'”
Entrepreneurial as the 20-somethings are — having secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments on past projects — they started thinking of something people could use. They thought of their favorite parks and open spaces, again rightly predicting trails would be overrun.
People would be seeking relief, McCormick and his comrades thought — but they could also be mixing with crowds in which the virus lurked.
Thus was born healthyparks.co, a free site displaying up-to-date crowding at popular getaways across the Front Range. At least, it aims to be up-to-date.
While red, “stay away” icons have flashed up to the minute for trailheads in Jefferson County thanks to traffic counters installed during a previous business arrangement, McCormick said rangers elsewhere are still getting used to regularly inputting status reports. That explains why Red Rock Canyon Open Space, North Cheyenne Cañon Park and other popular preserves in the Springs have recently gone several days without updates.
But the idea is there. And the idea was excitedly embraced by land managers, including in his hometown, McCormick said.
“The common refrain was, ‘This is my first pandemic, and I don’t know what to do,'” he said. “They were getting completely slammed. And it’s a big issue.”
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It’s been enough of an issue for statewide closures of parks and trails in Washington state, Illinois and New Jersey, to name a few. Similarly seeing their own natural places overwhelmed and social distancing not being followed, several cities have made the same decision. In Los Angeles, city parks closed for Easter weekend.
Gov. Jared Polis has encouraged Coloradans to exercise and reap the benefits of fresh air, but to do so near their homes. He has advised against travel, and a growing number of mountain communities have warned of fines and even jail time for out-of-state visitors. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service has said such activities as camping, hiking and fishing are “allowed but discouraged” in the Rocky Mountain region.
So as Front Range dwellers resist their usual springtime crave for the high country, they find themselves hitting their local trails.
And according to some observations, they are doing so in never-before-seen waves.
“We’re seeing, collectively, along the Front Range a record number of folks getting into our parks and trails,” said Matt Robbins, who has represented Jefferson County on frequent calls with regional land managers.
That seems to be the case in the Springs, where the outdoor scene typically appears this busy in June and July, when tourist crowds blend with the city’s so-called “super user” base.
Weekdays at Cheyenne Mountain State Park have appeared “much like a holiday weekend in the summertime,” said park manager Mitch Martin. He estimated visitation to be up 30% from around this time last year — in line with estimates across Front Range state parks, according to data provided to The Gazette.
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“It’s just crazy,” said David Leinweber, chairman of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, comprised of area advocates and decision-makers.
The group met virtually recently and discussed full parking lots seen across the city’s parks system. Local officials continue to preach safety: to not join crowded lots; to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between fellow trail users; to wear cloth face masks.
The masks are a newer recommendation, made in the wake of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found emerging evidence that asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers could transmit the disease by speaking, coughing or sneezing. Masks should be worn “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” the guidance read.
If parks officials in the Springs have considered closures, they haven’t publicly said so.
“Taking away who we are as Coloradans would be pretty challenging,” Leinweber said. “It just won’t happen.”
In the Springs, “we’re pretty well-pleased with the level of compliance we’re seeing in our parks,” Mayor John Suthers said earlier this week.
But the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment is worried about trends seen across the state.
“(W)e are concerned (park visitors) are not social distancing as much as they should,” read an email from a department spokeswoman. “We are working with our partners in counties across the state to monitor this data so we can make appropriate recommendations going forward.”
Authorities in Jefferson County have banned recreation on Clear Creek, popular for tubing in warm months. There and in Boulder County, officials have talked trail closures.
But “even if we were to move forward with that, it would be very challenging to patrol and monitor,” Robbins said.
He described a park system with an urban layout similar to that of the Springs, where hikers and mountain bikers can reach paths from neighborhoods and side streets. Gates, Robbins said, aren’t around as they are at Colorado’s two closed national parks, Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde.
“Taking away first responders from other duties to go out and write citations would create yet another challenge,” he said. And another could come from eliminating options for people to spread out — potentially creating a funnel to already congested areas.
There’s been an agreement with surrounding jurisdictions, said Vivienne Jannatpour, public information officer for Boulder County Parks and Open Space.
“No one can unilaterally close their trails, because that will put some pressure on other agencies,” she said. “I don’t want to say for sure, but it would likely be an all or nothing decision.”
Like at parks everywhere, Boulder County has experienced “a double whammy,” Jannatpour said — typical good-weather crowds meeting new and regular outdoor goers.
“In essence, that’s what we’ve always wanted, more people to discover,” she said. “It’s just very challenging when we’re also asking them to keep a lot of space.”
According to one University of Colorado at Boulder professor, “no ‘magic distance’ is safe.” So reads a list of recommendations by Jose-Luis Jimenez, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.
While finding chances for transmission to be lower while outside, Jimenez also suggests going to places with fewer people and avoiding narrow trails.
“The best analogy is to think of everyone you pass by as a smoker,” reads his recommendations. “You don’t want to smell their exhaled smoke.”
His expertise was used by McCormick’s team in creating healthyparks.co. They devised certain thresholds, with a half-full parking lot at a trailhead warranting a message of caution on the website.
Hopefully it becomes something people can use, said McCormick, who more than anything hopes for a return to normalcy — a return to his favorite trails without the masses.
“This’ll be around as long as it’s useful,” he said, “but I hope it’s not useful for very long.”
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