Warm weather brought Montanans outdoors in droves to enjoy fresh air and sunshine over the weekend, despite warnings from health officials to stay home to avoid spreading the new coronavirus.
“What we’ve advised people is, go for a hike, take a walk … play catch with your family, but make sure you’re using good sense,” said Barbara Schneeman, of RiverStone Health in Billings.
That means staying at least 6 feet away from others, washing or sanitizing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and for children, not using playground equipment.
People flocking outside in other cities, including New York City and Miami, have caused concern among health and government officials that people are not taking adequate precautions. By Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams was warning Americans that if they did not stay home, COVID-19 would continue to spread.
“Everyone needs to act as if they have the virus right now,” Adams said on NBC’s “Today” show. “You could be spreading it to someone else, or you could be getting it from someone else. Stay at home.”
Some states are taking the warning more seriously than others. Massachusetts, Indiana and Michigan became the latest states to order residents to stay home. They joined California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
For now, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock hasn’t ordered such an action. Likewise, Billings has no plans to close its parks and trails even though organizations like the Montana Nurses Association has asked Bullock to order residents to stay home, now known as “shelter in place.”
Michael Whitaker, Billings Parks and Recreation director, said the city is taking its lead from the Yellowstone County Unified Health Command and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding what to do. These include: don’t go outside to recreate if you are not feeling well; announce your presence when hiking on a trail to warn others so they can distance themselves.
“It all goes back to the CDC,” Whitaker said. “Whatever they recommend we follow. We don’t make any of those judgment calls.”
Many Montanans seem unready to self-isolate.
On Sunday a line of cars was parked along the West Fork Rock Creek Road outside Red Lodge as hikers, snowshoers, fat tire bikers and Nordic skiers took advantage of the warm weather to exercise. A local sporting goods store had rented all of its cross-country ski equipment by noon.
Even the Gallatin National Forest Service Avalanche Center’s daily report on Monday emphasized social distancing. “These are challenging times and we hope all can enjoy the mountains to ease the stress, but the COVID-19 virus needs to be taken seriously,” wrote GNFAC’s Alex Marienthal.
“Dial back your expectations and objectives to minimize the risk of injury and overtaxing local EMS services,” he added. “All day hot-lapping or a car shuttle traverse with a group of friends are not great choices. Accept that an hour or two of fresh air is sufficient therapy.”
Likewise, Bridger Bowl Ski Area, although closed, still issued an email urging skiers who hike up the mountain to “practice social distancing.”
In Billings, residents filled the parking lots atop the Rims and along the Yellowstone River as they took the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather.
Parents with stay-at-home children see outdoor trails and parks as ways to burn off anxiety and pent-up energy at a time when movie theaters, restaurants, bowling alleys and other forms of recreation are indefinitely closed to public use. Play dates are also not advised.
“I think it would be very difficult to close parks because it’s so nice outside,” Whitaker said.
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