Need a break? Get outside but keep your distance and know where to go

Although people have been asked to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, even the governor knows Montanans like to get outside. But too many in the same spots outdoors can still be a problem.

When Gov. Steve Bullock issued his stay-at-home order on Thursday, he included an exception for outdoor activity as long as people could stay a safe distance apart.

“Individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas, including public lands in Montana provided they remain open to recreation,” Bullock’s order stated.

Since then, people have been reporting some violations in various places such as popular trails or fishing access sites. People have posted photos of conga lines of trucks at fishing access sites, questioning the legality of floaters putting on the river so close together.

On Friday, Montana Trout Unlimited spokesman Clayton Elliot posted a warning to fishermen on Facebook.

“There is a lot of pressure coming at our managers to close and restrict activities like fishing, in part because the less-than-lackluster adherence to those rules happening across Montana at places like FAS sites and boat ramps,” Elliot wrote.

“Keep in mind the health of your fellow anglers, our dedicated FWP staff that are still out there, and for god’s sake, don’t ruin it for us all by being stupid and being that person that I keep hearing about on calls that is ignoring these orders. Be overly safe and keep the length of that five weight (rod) between everyone at FAS sites!!”

Bullock’s order went into effect at midnight on Friday, and some took it to heart, maybe too much so. By noon on Friday, after Bullock’s order was published but before it went into effect, the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management put out a notice asking that people not call 9-1-1 to report people walking together outside.

But almost simultaneously, more parks started shutting down.

Montana State Parks remain open but only during the day and group sites are closed.

On Friday, Glacier National Park announced it would close to all visitors until further notice.

“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our state, county, and tribal partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the park,” said Glacier NP Superintendent Jeff Mow in a statement. “We will continue to work with our state, county, and tribal partners as this crisis continues and we will coordinate with them on when it will be safe to reopen the park.”

The Trump administration didn’t issue an order for all the national parks to close, so they’ve been closing one-at-a-time as superintendents decided the time had come. After the Trump administration waved park entry fees on March 18, parks farther south, such as Grand Canyon, Zion and Joshua Tree, were inundated with people and park superintendents worried about the spread of disease as they watched the masses jam into visitors centers and on popular trails.

Staff at several parks have reported vandalism, illegal camping, overcrowding, and short-staffing issues that are reminiscent of those that arose during the partial government shutdown of 2018-2019.

“And I thought the shutdown was bad,” said a Virgin Islands National Park employee who’d returned home to Montana to wait out the COVID-19 National Park Service closures. But unlike the January 2019 federal government shutdown, the shelter-in-place orders may last longer and will take more than Congress passing an appropriations bill to open things back up.

Even though Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks still have snow, both closed to the public last Tuesday, four days before Glacier closed.

Also on Friday, Montana’s national forests announced they were closing all developed recreational facilities, including campgrounds, day-use sites and toilets.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com