Concerns about Coloradans failing to observe proper social distancing at outdoor public places during the COVID-19 outbreak helped inspire Governor Jared Polis to issue a statewide stay-at-home order on March 25. Now, with that mandate in place, law enforcement officials are bracing for a possible repeat this weekend of what Summit County Sheriff and recent Westword profile subject Jaime FitzSimons calls "the Loveland Pass debacle."
FitzSimons is referring to the estimated hundreds of people who gathered at Loveland Pass on March 21 and March 22 to uphill ski — edging their way back up a slope, then skiing to the bottom — after Polis had closed the state's ski areas. Because the resort's parking lot was closed, skiers left their cars along the side of U.S. 6, the highway leading to it, creating a long line of vehicles. And many of those outdoors lovers gave little evidence of attempting to maintain a six-foot distance from other folks, even though mountain towns have been among the hardest hit when it comes to COVID-19 infections per capita.
The area "was just overwhelmed with skiers," FitzSimons says, "because we had just gotten fresh snow and the weather was nice. And because of that, all of our local areas were also overwhelmed. There was just an incredible amount of people and cars. We had to go up there and clear everybody out. It was definitely a remarkable event that got the attention of the community."
It also caused changes in procedure. Loveland formally made uphilling off-limits as of Wednesday, March 25 — but whether that will dissuade throngs from heading to the pass this weekend is unclear. After all, FitzSimons notes, normal ski-area business is still verboten (the current closure runs through April 6 and could be extended) and "it's supposed to snow again."
To prevent a repeat of what happened, the Colorado State Patrol has put together what FitzSimons describes as a "task force" to monitor the situation, with a particular focus on parking, which isn't supposed to happen along the edge of the highway except in an emergency.
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The Summit County Sheriff's Office is also on alert for reasons that go beyond public-health concerns.
One fear: another avalanche like the one triggered on March 26 by a snowboarder near the Eisenhower Tunnel. "The snow has been baking in the sun," FitzSimons points out. "The snow's rotting out there," creating different layers whose instability could lead to disaster. He adds that "the closure of uphill access pushed people out of their comfort zone and into the backcountry — and some of them probably shouldn't be there. That could compel us to call out rescue teams and lead to a bunch of contacts we don't need to be having."
Under Polis's stay-at-home order, social distancing is no longer just a recommendation, and FitzSimons believes that most of the people who descended on Loveland Pass last weekend "are law-abiding citizens and want to do the right thing. So why are they violating the law now? If we could all just abide by the order, we'll get through this a lot faster. I would tell them that they're putting their family and their friends at risk of not only getting the virus, but of losing out economically, because the longer the shutdown is, the longer the economic impact will be, and the more jobs that will be lost. There are so many cascading effects that people aren't thinking of."
As for disappointed skiers who desperately want to hit the slopes, FitzSimons has a message: "I promise you it's going to snow again next year. I promise it will come back. So we can sit this one out."