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Disease experts say sun and fresh air are important, but stay close to home and away from others
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Disease experts say sun and fresh air are important, but stay close to home and away from others

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We weren’t sure what to do.

My husband, 3-year-old daughter and I had been cooped up in our house all week – as most of us are. By Saturday, we were ready to do something outside, but the U.S. Forest Service had closed trailheads near our Laramie home, and we didn’t want to drive for hours in the midst of a pandemic.

Fishing was an option. But the Miracle Mile and Gray Reef sections of the North Platte River have been packed with anglers antsy to get outside, so we tried the Laramie River outside town. We were alone when we arrived. Three vehicles with Colorado license plates were parked nearby when we returned from the water.

Maybe fishing wasn’t the best plan. But if water is out, high country still snowed in, and many trailheads and campgrounds are closed, what should an outdoors person responsibly do to recreate in the age of COVID-19?

“Forget the parks; seek out the spaces in between, the backyards and alleys,” wrote Western author Craig Childs in a recent essay in High Country News. “It’s a great time to explore an irrigation ditch or the woods at the edge of town — to see what’s around you. Be as local as you can.”

In the face of a pandemic raging across the country and world, killing tens of thousands of people and landing hundreds of thousands out of work, discussing where we can recreate seems trivial at best and self-centered at worst. But even the doctors telling us to stay away from one another and reduce the possibility for transmission also say fresh air, sunshine and exercise is necessary.

Time outside stems depression, said Dr. Mark Dowell, the Natrona County health officer and a specialist with Rocky Mountain Infectious Disease, and it boosts our immune systems.

But there’s also a difference between driving five hours to climb, ski or mountain bike and taking a walk around the block, jogging through a nearby stretch of prairie, or hiking alone through a bit of national forest.

Unsure, as many of us are, about what to do, I turned to medical experts and government officials for their recommendations for how to stay sane and safe while being responsible.

***

First, the bad news. While Wyoming doesn’t have a statewide, shelter-in-place order as of deadline Friday afternoon, many outdoor recreation areas are already closed.

Wyoming State Parks have closed all overnight camping facilities including cabins, yurts, group sites and shelters, showerhouses, some non-essential restrooms and playgrounds. State historic sites are also closed.

Wyoming Game and Fish hasn’t closed its habitat management areas or fishing accesses, yet, but some places like Teton County have issued shelter-in-place orders meaning people need to stay home.

The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest has closed most of its trailheads, cabins and restrooms, and the Bridger-Teton National Forest closed most of its campgrounds at least through the end of April.

Our neighbors to the north and south both have shelter-in-place orders right now. Some counties in Colorado are concerned enough they’re giving tickets to anyone parking on the sides of certain roads from other counties.

But what about Wyoming’s fishing accesses full of out-of-state license plates? Are there any rules for movement in Wyoming, or for someone from another state showing up here? Yes, as of Friday, said Brian Nesvik, director of Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department.

A directive from Gov. Mark Gordon released Friday afternoon said anyone coming here from another state or country for non-work-related purposes should immediately self-quarantine for 14 days. “For visits fewer than 14 days, that individual must self-quarantine for the duration of the visit,” the governor’s news release stated. “The directive is intended to discourage out-of-state visitation during the pandemic and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Gordon is telling people from out of state not to come here, Nesvik said, for any kind of outdoor recreation or anything not related to work. “This isn’t the time to do it.”

***

So what can you do if your health and sanity requires you be outside?

Be reasonable, steer clear of other people and stay close to home, Dowell said. “Use common sense.”

If you pull up to a fishing access, and it’s packed with cars and fishermen, don’t stop. If a trailhead has people lingering at the start, keep moving. Stay 6 feet away from anyone not in your household at all times, no matter what.

“If you don’t socially distance, you may introduce the virus into your family and be really sorry. Or you can introduce it into the community and end up hurting someone older,” Dowell said. “Don’t go traveling all over the state. Stay within the county. Hunker down for a moment.”

You can still go hiking if you avoid others. You can go for runs around town or in the prairie. Turkey seasons are already open in some places, and more will open soon. But if you go, keep to yourself and stay close to home. Don’t, as many experts have advised, go on more risky outings like backcountry skiing, mountaineering or climbing that could land you in a hospital.

We’re lucky enough to live in a state like Wyoming where we all have quick access to bits of sagebrush flat or mountainside. The benefit of being the least-populated state in the nation right now is our ability to still go outside while staying away from everyone else.

“I don’t like it any better than anyone else,” Dowell said. “Better times are ahead, but we have to do this right now.”

Maybe fishing wasn’t the best plan. But if water is out, high country still snowed in, and many trailheads and campgrounds are closed, what should an outdoors person responsibly do to recreate in the age of COVID-19?

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