Rural Idaho towns ask visitors to stay away during pandemic. But are people listening?

Rural Idaho towns ask visitors to stay away during pandemic. But are people listening?

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BOISE — In a Tuesday virtual town hall with Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a caller identified as Ginger from McCall urged Little to keep visitors from areas already infected with coronavirus away from small, rural towns that haven’t yet been affected.

“We are seeing people who are coming all over the place to come here from vacation. I saw that half of the people at Albertsons had Ada County plates. We counted five cars with Washington state plates,” she said. “Can you put an announcement out there to please stop coming to the mountains? Do something to safeguard us. … Can you please do something to help us?”

At the time, Little said education was key. The next day, he issued a statewide stay-home order banning all travel that’s not essential.

But people from out of town (and out of state) have already been fleeing to mountain towns and rural counties that have yet to confirm their own cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. It’s prompted residents and officials to echo Ginger’s plea to the governor: Please stay away. They cannot handle the effects of this pandemic.

VALLEY COUNTY MAYORS, HEALTH CARE WORKERS: PLEASE AVOID VISITING

Last weekend, officials from a handful of small towns in Valley County issued statements asking visitors to steer clear of the area. They cited the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Blaine County, another popular resort community that has become the epicenter of coronavirus in Idaho.

“We must avoid reproducing this outcome in other communities like McCall. Though our hospital is prepared to care for the citizens of Valley County and surrounding areas, an influx of people from elsewhere risks overwhelming the limited resources at our hospital. It also continues the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” said Dr. Greg Irvine, St. Luke’s McCall Medical Center chief of staff, in the McCall statement.

McCall city manager Anette Spickard said in an email Wednesday that “it is best if people stay in their own community during this uncertain time.”

Bob Powell, mayor of Crouch, said in a phone interview ahead of Little’s order that people were already swarming the area, raising concern from residents over how the town of 170 people would handle an outbreak.

“If somebody comes up here (and spreads coronavirus), just one person, we could be devastated,” Powell said.

He said he was prompted to issue his Sunday statement after hearing from city commissioners, who had seen visitors “camping in the mud and driving through snowbanks.” Visitors aren’t just being destructive, Powell said. They’re straining local resources, like the town grocery store, which Powell said is selling out of food.

“If I drive around, I see more cars from out of state than people who are from here,” Powell said.

He’s noticed license plates from California and Oregon, as well as other Idaho counties including Blaine County.

“People are saying, ‘Let’s go to the mountains, it’s safe there,’ ” Powell said. “More people are coming here to wait things out.”

But that creates unsafe conditions for the town’s full-time residents, many of whom are elderly, Powell said.

“Being in the mountains is not a safe haven. All it takes is one person (to spread the virus),” he said.

BOISE, OWYHEE, IDAHO, CUSTER COUNTIES ALSO DEALING WITH INFLUX OF VISITORS

The Lewiston Tribune on Wednesday reported that Idaho County, home to Grangeville and Riggins, also had seen visitors who told officials they were taking refuge from COVID-19 hot spots in the state and beyond. A Riggins man told the newspaper he’d seen cars and campers with Ada County license plates packed along the Salmon River last weekend.

Ada County visitors also have frequented neighboring Owyhee and Boise counties, contributing to the closure of the Boise National Forest and a letter from Owyhee officials asking recreators to stay away.

Owyhee County commissioner Jerry Hoaglund said in a phone interview that recreation traffic last weekend was unlike anything he’d seen before.

“Valley County kind of closed off, so it’s forced everybody over into our county and it’s pretty much overwhelming,” he said.

Campers set up on private land or near livestock grazing equipment, prompting concerns about the impact on agriculture, a major asset for Owyhee County.

“It’s almost time to turn livestock out,” Hoagland said. “If this continues again, there could be issues with cows getting to water tanks if there are people and dogs and kids running around.”

Recreators riding off-highway vehicles also caused damage to the landscape that officials said could take years to rectify, and Hoagland said people heading up snow-covered mountain roads were becoming stuck. When they need to be rescued, they potentially put local first responders at risk, Hoagland said.

“It’s just overwhelming. I know it’s public lands and they have a right to go out there, but I sure wish they would at least respect the area,” he said.

CLOSING A FOREST

Forest Service officials Thursday chose to shutter the Boise National Forest in an attempt to protect communities like Crouch and Idaho City that border or sit within forest limits.

“In the midst of spring break, we have visitors that want to enjoy the forest but many areas, including hot springs, are drawing more people than social distancing guidelines recommend,” said Tawnya Brummett, Boise National Forest supervisor, in a news release.

People aren’t just visiting. Boise County Emergency Management coordinator Bob Showalter said there’s evidence some people were trying to camp in the forest for extended periods.

“People are coming up here basically to live,” Showalter said.

He said Little’s stay-home directive, which exempts outdoor activity for exercise, is not an invitation to head to the Boise National Forest.

“The order states you can run, hike, bike, etc., but the reference is doing those things close to your home. It doesn’t mean to load up the truck or camper to come to our communities to do those things,” Showalter said in an email. “… Please do not go to other counties in the state and jeopardize healthy populations.”

That warning came too late for Custer County, which confirmed its first coronavirus case in the tiny town of Stanley on Wednesday. Mayor Steve Botti said in a phone interview that traffic is “dropping off very rapidly now after the governor’s order.” But earlier in the week, visitors — including from Blaine County, which was under its own shelter-in-place order — were common.

“For a place where people are supposedly on lockdown and supposed to stay home, you’re seeing a lot of 5B license plates around,” Gary Cvecich, a Stanley resident, said Wednesday. “They’re coming up to go steelhead fishing. My personal thoughts are it’s rather irresponsible.”

“On a local level, it’s quite frustrating for people here. We are a small, close-knit community. Our feelings are, when something like this isn’t going on, we love the tourists,” Cvecich added.

But for now?

“Do what the whole country’s been asked to do: Stay home. It’s that simple.”

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