DENVER — The federal government listened to officials in Colorado who pleaded with them to close Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Friday, it's the second national park to close nationwide for the same reason. Yosemite shut down earlier in the day.
The National Park Service announced the closure after the mayor of Estes Park, which neighbors RMNP, and Larimer County's public health director sent letters to the Department of the Interior making the request.
Social distancing, as is urged during the outbreak, was not possible in the crowded areas of the park, Mayor Todd Jirsa wrote in his letter.
“On behalf of the Town of Estes Park, I am requesting the immediate closure of Rocky Mountain National Park, to assist our community, our county, and our state in addressing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote.
Traffic in the park had been increasing, Jirsa said, as spring breakers were coming to Colorado, and as people who would otherwise be at the now-closed ski resorts headed to the park.
The Trump administration decided this week to waive national park fees during the pandemic, also a draw for tourists.
Jirsa wrote that groceries and emergency services must be available to residents who live in the town.
“A continued influx of visitors at this critical time presents a grave public health concern to Estes Park and our surrounding communities. Estes Park’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced today,” the letter said. “For the sake of prospective visitors and our residents, including the national park staff who are our friends and neighbors, we urgently request that you consider the temporary closure of the park. If this is not an option, please reinstate fees and staff the gates.”
Friday night, Jirsa said he was happy with the swift decision to close.
"I had no sooner sent that letter that I got a return call from the Secretary of the Interior," he said, "And we had a very good, cordial conversation on the phone. Of course, they're trying to make very data-driven decisions, and they want to be able to take recommendations of local public health director, and that’s what they wanted to do in this case."
Colorado's other national parks continue to operate, as do state parks.
On Saturday, Larimer County and the Town of Estes Park issued an order closing short-term accommodations within the Estes Valley, effective at noon on Monday, March 23.
Officials said Estes Park is limiting visitor services in the town and is discouraging visitation. Exceptions are in place for local workers, long-term residents of short-term facilities and those who are sick or quarantined.
“This is an incredibly difficult decision made with the health of the people in our community in mind - our number one priority. We hope that the sooner we take these measures, the sooner we can celebrate the reopening of our businesses,” Town Administrator Travis Machalek said.
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