Virus vacationers: land managers, county officials work to manage public safety on public lands

BUFFALO – Nestled at the base of the Bighorns, Johnson County draws tourists and their wallets from across Wyoming and out of state. Now, amid a global pandemic, that economic amenity looks more like a public health liability.

Throughout the Mountain West, vacation hotspots from Vail, Colorado to Sun Valley, Idaho became virus hotbeds as visitors carrying COVID-19 spread infection before social distancing restrictions went into effect and ski areas closed down. In rural areas, public health officials worried about hospital capacity as second homeowners arrived, fleeing the crowds and heavy virus load of big cities.

In a recent press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon spoke of concerns from border communities about “an influx of out-of- state visitors seeking refuge in Wyoming.”

However, based on the plates that Johnson County Sheriff Rod Odenbach and his deputies see every day – now Utah, then Pennsylvania, often Colorado – some out-of-staters aren't stopping until they get to the Bighorns. 

"We had a call in the Kaycee area about people specifically saying they were fleeing South Carolina because of COVID-19, and they were looking for a place to stay in Johnson County," Odenbach said. "That raises a red flag, of course." 

At press time, top tourist destination Teton County had a per capita infection rate more than double that of any other Wyoming county. 

Johnson County, however, was second highest, outpacing areas with major cities like Casper or Cheyenne. 

Information about where infected Johnson County residents may have contracted COVID-19 is either unknown or has not been made publicly available.

"There's definitely nonresident traffic that we've not had before, not this time of year," Odenbach said. "You're used to seeing those people, but not in April; the snow's not even off the mountain yet. If you pay attention, you see vehicles from out of state with what looks like a lot of personal belongings in there." 

It's possible that he's just looking more closely this year, Odenbach said. 

Even so, under a recent directive from Gordon, anyone entering Wyoming for a non-work-related purpose should immediately self-quarantine for 14 days.

"This visitation poses a threat to our communities and to our residents trying to act responsibly," Gordon said.

"I'm hearing from commissioners around the state about people showing up in campers in weird places," said Johnson County Commissioner Bill Novotny. "It's actually one of the reasons that we closed Lake DeSmet to camping and made it day use only." 

U.S. Forest Service Powder River District Ranger Traci Weaver has noticed the visitors too.

"I definitely saw a lot of out-of-state cars parked in Ten Sleep Canyon, some from Colorado, some from Washington State," Weaver said. "It's just this time of year where that side of the mountain starts to thaw out a little quicker and people start wanting to get out and recreate and climb." 

In an effort to dissuade vacationers, Gordon banned overnight camping in Wyoming state parks on March 30. Wyoming's national parks had already closed to visitors a week earlier.

Those decisions to limit access to public land came as desert communities like Moab, Utah, urged a wave of would-be campers to stay away, citing concerns about the limits of their health care systems.

"Unfortunately, when you have large swaths of public land, sometimes that draws the type of visitors that we don't necessarily want," Novotny said. "We hope that the people from out of county or out of state stay out of Johnson County so that we don't put a strain on our local hospital and our local resources." 

Turning potential visitors away is a bitter pill to swallow in a county where roughly a quarter of local sales tax collections can be attributed to tourism. 

In an April 13 email to county officials, Novotny noted that sales tax dollars were already below their seasonal average by roughly 40% in March.

"It's such a double-edged sword," Novotny said. "How do we balance having a vibrant and resurgent tourist economy while also protecting people? I want people to stop at the Sports Lure and get gear and gas up and grab a burger from the Dash Inn. But as we're looking at dealing with the first death in the state, it reminds us that this is a very, very deadly strain of virus."

On April 7, Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien announced a temporary closure of the Forest Service's developed recreation sites, including campgrounds, day-use areas or picnic areas, and other amenities such as water stations, fire rings, picnic tables, restroom facilities, trash cans and trash collection services.

The regional order applies to 24 national forests and grasslands across Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, including the Bighorn National Forest. It also enacted fire restrictions, banning any open flames, including barbecue grills and wood-burning stoves, within the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. Smoking is also prohibited.

"We are providing some recreation opportunities where we can while protecting and keeping employees, the public and our communities safe from the virus, as well as protecting and keeping communities and natural and cultural resources safe from unwanted human-caused wildfires," Eberlein said in a statement.

In Johnson County, fire seemed a remote risk amid a week of April snowstorms, but according to Weaver, there have already been several fires in Colorado this year.

"It's not uncommon for them to move into fire season before we do so," she said. "Before spring green-up and when they don't have snow on the ground, then they're prone to fires  just like we can be." 

According to Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tyson Finnecum, the BLM currently does not have plans to issue fire restrictions, though the agency is continuing to monitor the situation.

"The BLM is reminding public land users to recreate in dispersed areas, heed current CDC guidelines, and follow Leave No Trace principles," Finnecum said in an email. Novotny said he discussed county-level restrictions with local fire warden Tom Camino, and "it's (Camino's) opinion that we do not institute it countywide this time." 

"A lot of that has to do with what the impact would be on the oil and gas industry," Novotny added. "It adds restrictions to when they can flare gas or do just basic things like welding." 

And, like health care workers, law enforcement, search and rescue and land management personnel are in limited supply.

After two Washakie County deputies arrested a man from New York on April 6, he was placed in jail and tested for COVID-19, according to a press release from the sheriff's department. 

In the interim, the deputies involved had to be placed in a 14-day quarantine. 

Despite showing no symptoms, the inmate ultimately tested positive. 

"Our medical facilities here are not equipped for a lot of people," Weaver said. "We're just trying to do what we can to keep stress off of that from people that might be coming from an area that has a lot more COVID cases than we do." 

Odenbach isn't worried about a staffing shortage yet  "knock on wood," he said. 

Still, he would like to have more personal protective equipment available for his employees.

"We're having trouble finding the N-95 masks," Odenbach said. "We have some on hand. We have enough to get us by. We were hoping to get some from Homeland Security, but those stockpiles of equipment and masks, all that stuff is going somewhere else. We're not getting it." 

In an April 3 press conference, Gordon said that orders of equipment intended for Wyoming's medical workers had been diverted to other states.

For now, Weaver said the Forest Service is working to prepare for the upcoming season. 

She is awaiting the arrival of seasonal firefighters and working to make their onboarding and training available in a virtual format. The new arrivals will have to self-quarantine for 14 days under the governor's directive. 

"It's a slower time on the mountain," she said. "In a lot of senses, this is maybe the best time of year this could happen for us."