This Mother’s Day weekend — and throughout the spring, summer, and fall — people should have the option to camp in Colorado’s parks. The state should encourage this as a safe and healthy activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, authorities with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said they will continue a coronavirus camping ban until further notice. The agency wants to open for camping, but Gov. Jared Polis won’t allow it. Last week’s announcement probably means closure during Memorial Day weekend in May.
As the state continues forbidding camping on public lands, we see tents crammed in Colorado cities that have permanent laws against camping within city limits. A Denver County judge in December ruled Denver’s camping ban unconstitutional. Apparently, we have a constitutional right to camp almost anywhere regardless of rules imposed by authorities.
Urban camping bans are motivated first and foremost by public health concerns that jeopardize the homeless and others.
Given the immediate outcry and lawsuits that arise surrounding municipal camping bans, one must wonder why it is OK for the state to prevent campers from using wilderness land intended and designed for camping — property campers pay to use with taxes and significant user fees. If the homeless have camping rights, those same rights extend to the homebound.
Unlike legally protected urban camping, state park camping pays for parks. Fees are the primary source of funding for Parks and Wildlife.
By our estimate, based on 400 campsites at Lake Pueblo State Park, Parks and Wildlife will lose more than $1 million by Memorial Day if people cannot camp. This loss, at that park alone, will run into the millions if people cannot camp over Father’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. That’s the loss at just one of 41 parks.
No one can make a serious case that state park camping would spread COVID-19. In fact, it would probably reduce transmission.
Health experts say people are significantly less likely to spread or contract COVID-19 — or almost any airborne virus — while outside. Throw in the fact most campsites separate tents and RVs by more than 6 feet and it seems like commonsense to camp.
“Parks, beaches — as long as they’re not cheek to jowl, cycling, walking, this is good,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as quoted in the media. “Enjoy nature. It’s good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus.”
It doesn’t take a scientist to understand that contagions trapped inside the stagnant air of indoor spaces, devoid of the sun’s disinfecting ultraviolet radiation, are more likely to survive and travel from person to person.
“The risks of virus transmissibility in the air outdoors is likely quite low…” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “Outside, things like sunlight, wind, rain, ambient temperature, and humidity can affect virus infectivity and transmissibility, so while we can’t say there’s zero risk, it’s likely low unless you are engaging in activities as part of a large crowd.”
The evidence suggesting we should be outside is clear, overwhelming, and easy to find.
“Studies suggest activities held outdoors as temperatures warm pose lower COVID risk than those done in confined indoor spaces,” tweeted Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.
“As we reopen, states should look to ease rules to allow more recreational, religious, and business activities to occur outside.”
Beyond wanting the campgrounds closed, Polis advises Coloradans to recreate no more than 10 miles from their homes. For people in central neighborhoods of cities, this means no access to any of Colorado’s wilderness assets.
It is hard to make sense of the 10-mile travel limit. People routinely travel hundreds of miles on Colorado highways for nonrecreational activities. They travel to and from Colorado airports and engage in a variety of sanctioned nonrecreational activities. It seems a certainty the virus more easily travels between people in airports, on planes, and in stores than among those in outdoor conditions hostile to germs.
Gov. Polis should consider lifting the camping ban immediately with a plan to ensure social distancing in bleach-sanitized restrooms and shower facilities. Instruct rangers and other appropriate law enforcement to enforce social distancing by campers. No extra safety measures will cost more than the revenue lost to campground closures.
Allow the public to travel to state campgrounds for the sake of better mental and physical health, a potential reduction in the spread of COVID-19, and to keep our state parks from losing millions in funding.