In the fortnight since COVID-19 became the focal point of the world, vast regions of the U.S. have all but ceased to operate, and outdoor meccas are no exception.
From Moab to Truckee, Jackson Hole’s peers around the Intermountain West face similar challenges in the struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. They are tourism hot spots, drawing potentially infected visitors from far and wide, and their health care infrastructure is often poorly equipped to handle severe outbreaks.
They’ve taken steps to do their part in slowing the spread and to protect their residents. The resorts around which mountain towns revolve have shuttered, as have most other nonessential businesses. Many wilderness gateways are discouraging visitors, including by closing national parks, like Yellowstone and Grand Teton (see story on page 6). And some have effectively walled themselves off to out-of-towners with hotel closures.
Among those leading the pack is San Miguel County in southwest Colorado, home to the town of Telluride and its namesake ski resort. Health officials there have taken one of the most aggressive approaches of any outdoor community with their “shelter-in-place” order.
“You’re expected to stay in your home with your immediate family,” said Emily Coe, the county’s public health office coordinator, “and to only leave basically one person at a time to go do essential tasks in order to decrease the possibility of cross-infecting people.”
The order provides for legal repercussions, with anyone who violates its requirements liable for civil and criminal penalties. Susan Lilly, the county’s public information officer, said the county isn’t enforcing it but expect residents to comply.
It doesn’t bar people leaving their homes for hiking, skiing, mountain biking or other outdoor pursuits. But it does prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people, and with hotels, shops and restaurants closed, it essentially bans tourism.
“There’s nothing to do and no place to stay,” Lilly said.
Moab, Utah, also made headlines as it closed all lodging to non-locals and began asking tourists to postpone their trips. Would-be visitors are hearing the same message from Bishop, California; Park City, Utah; and Aspen, Colorado; among many other popular travel spots.
Idaho’s Blaine County, home to Ketchum and Sun Valley, accounts for about half the coronavirus cases in the state. Officials there are advising recent visitors to quarantine for two weeks because they may have come in contact with an infected person during their Idaho trip.
In many ways, shelter-in-place restrictions resemble those already in effect in Jackson Hole. But in some cases nonessential retail businesses remain open, as do hotels, and officials have yet to turn away visitors.
Teton County Public Health Officer Travis Riddell said in an op-ed in the Jackson Hole Daily on Tuesday that he doesn’t plan to enact anything as stringent as a shelter-in-place order. If health officials are too aggressive in their efforts to “flatten the curve,” he worries, they could simply shift the curve to the right, postponing a surge in COVID-19 cases rather than strategically allowing the virus to spread at a rate hospitals can manage. Basically, Riddell explained, he wants to slow transmission, not stop it altogether.
Depending on the results of the county’s current health order, which is set to expire in a week, if Riddell doesn’t extend it, he said he is open to stricter measures.
“Rest assured, a countywide shelter-in-place order is on the table for Teton County,” he wrote. “(A draft is on my desktop.) If our current strategy does not slow the spread quickly enough, we are prepared to act.”
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon also addressed the prospect of such an order during a news conference Monday, saying “we do not believe [it] is necessary.”
“What we’re trying to do is to find a balance that respects private property rights, personal liberties and prudent health standards,” Gordon said. “We can hopefully look to Wyoming being a bellwether state that leads the nation in not having to proceed with shelter in place. But that can only come with citizens stepping up and doing their part with social distancing, maintaining good hygiene and doing their best to meet these orders.”
Another novel solution in San Miguel County is its partnership with United Biomedical Inc., a multinational company whose executives live part time in Telluride. The company’s coronavirus-focused subsidiary, c19, will test for free anyone who volunteers to give a blood sample.
Before that partnership the county had tested just a few dozen of its 8,000 or so residents, using nasal swabs, and confirmed one case of COVID-19. Like the rest of the country it lacked the resources to adequately track the spread of the virus. Seven hundred blood tests await analysis, and Lilly said the plan is to collect more samples today.
So far, it seems, San Miguel County’s efforts may be holding the virus at bay. Likewise, Teton County has just two confirmed cases, though officials note that better testing will almost surely reveal more. But other mountain towns haven’t been so lucky.
Vail, in Colorado’s Eagle County, has become a state epicenter. As of this weekend the county had 74 cases, about half as many as Denver, though the city’s population is 15 times larger than the mountain resort. It’s an unsurprising outcome for destination communities, where national and international visitors can easily transmit disease. Park City has also seen a disproportionate spike in cases.
Though elected officials in Jackson Hole have broached the question of whether to close lodging and discourage visitors, they have yet to take a formal stand on the issue, as some communities have.
While discussing the subject during a Town Council meeting Monday, Councilor Arne Jorgensen noted Teton County won’t need to deal with the spring hordes that warmer areas receive.
“We’re fortunate in that we’re not facing the influx of tourists over the next couple months that Moab is,” he said. “I think we’re in a very, very different place.”
But he and other councilors acknowledged the time may come when officials must take an active role in deterring visitors. Some residents are already calling on them to do so.
“Tourists from throughout the country are continuing to come to Jackson, gathering as if we are immune here in our isolated mountain town,” Lori Iverson wrote in a letter to the council. “We need to be proactive with urgent messaging that the responsible course of action for the good of all is to limit out-of-area travel whenever possible.”