SALEM, Ore. — The sweeping shutdown of recreation on public lands has become increasingly difficult for Oregonians as the weather turns sunny and warm.
Whether because they're going stir-crazy at home, or just don't know, an increasing number of people are entering parks and beaches closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
People have moved barricades, torn down signs and generally trespassed with impunity at a number of places that are officially closed.
"For many people, they know the park is closed, so it’s not a matter of awareness," said Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. "They don’t believe closures are necessary, or they feel they don’t apply to them."
The places people are trespassing more frequently are some of Oregon's signature spots for natural beauty: the Columbia Gorge, northern Oregon Coast and popular state parks such as Silver Falls and Smith Rock.
And if it continues, officials said they're prepared to hit people with stiffer penalties.
"We try to lead with education, but stiffer consequences are in our toolkit, and police can charge people with a crime," Havel said. "We'd rather not go there since law enforcement has better things to do. But we can go there if needed."
Questions about COVID-19 spread in outdoors
Although nobody would go on the record suggesting they were willing to break Oregon's recreational closures, there is lots of skepticism online and on social media about the value of shutting down Oregon's outdoors.
Look online, and you'll find information suggesting such closures are unnecessary, while at the same time, other sources say the virus could also spread much farther than the 6 feet typically required for social distancing in the open air.
The story of how Oregon's outdoors was shut down is also confusing.
At first, outdoor recreation was encouraged as perhaps the one thing people could do during the pandemic, as long as social distancing was maintained. Oregon's state parks originally planned to stay open.
The problem is that Oregon's highways from Portland tend to funnel people to the same handful of locations — the northern Coast, Gorge and Mount Hood. And after masses of people hit the Coast and Gorge in one three-day span — March 20-22 — local cities, terrified that city-dwellers were importing the virus into small and vulnerable towns, began enacting emergency orders to literally kick the tourists out.
A snowball followed, and after Gov. Brown's emergency order to "stay home, save lives," the patchwork of agencies that manages Oregon's outdoors began limiting or closing recreation, though often in ways that left people confused and searching for the few places that might remain open.
"Yes, we can see how it could be confusing, but most people haven't missed the overarching message and that is: you need to stay home," Havel said. "Go out the front door and get a breath of fresh air. Take a walk or run nearby. But the one thing we know is that less travel means less transmission. And if you're trying to figure out how you can get to your favorite trail or beach, you've missed the point."
Convincing people to abide has been easier said than done.
People still coming to the Coast
Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer said emergency measures put in place to evict tourists worked to a point, but hundreds of people are still arriving in northern coast towns on weekends and seeking ways to reach the beach.
"We're seeing people remove parking barriers to sneak by, or parking in town and sneaking through neighborhoods to get onto the beach," he said. "We'll see groups of 20 people out there having a bonfire, or groups of Washingtonians coming down to go clamming. It's just not appropriate."
Some parts of the coast have taken extreme measures to stop people from arriving from other areas.
Seaside shut down the beaches within its city limits, an unprecedented measure that even limits locals from strolling on the sand.
"If you live in Seaside, the Seaside beach is closed. If you live in Clatsop County, the Seaside beach is closed. If you live outside of this county, the Seaside beach is closed," wrote Seaside police chef Dave Ham. "It doesn't matter if you are a 'local' or not, THE SEASIDE BEACH IS CLOSED!"
Cannon Beach took it a step farther, closing itself to literally all outsiders — even during the daytime. Any car suspected of being from outside the area has been given warnings they can be found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.
Clatsop County has just five confirmed COVID-19 cases and zero deaths so far. Balensifer worries about people from places with higher rates of the virus, who might not know they are carriers, arriving and interacting with people in town at gas stations or grocery stores.
Newport and Lincoln City, for example, each have just 25 hospital beds apiece.
"We don't have much for medical facilities," Balensifer said. "It only takes one person to spread it pretty far and we're just trying to look out for our residents.
"Our message is: help us get across the finish line. We'll welcome you back when this is over."
Insistent Columbia Gorge visitors
The unofficial outdoor playground for the Portland Metro's 2.4 million people, the Gorge has seen the biggest struggle to keep people out.
Everything in the Gorge is closed — every park, trail and even off-trail locations. But that hasn't stopped visitors.
"Across all parks from Troutdale to Hood River, we generally had contact with a person ignoring closure and attempting to enter parks every 4 minutes," Havel said. "We had to restore the position of barricades every 4 minutes because people keep moving them."
Typically, the rangers enforcing the ban issue a written compliance request, Havel said, "but there were so many violators, we don't have time to write the requests," he said.
Mountain bikers at Silver Falls
Most of Oregon's popular state parks have seen trespassing, Havel said.
"People are still trying to drive into Smith Rock. We’ve been successfully turning them away, so that’s been going OK," he said.
At Silver Falls, east of Salem, around 12 to 20 cars per day have been ushered out of the park. But they're also having issues with mountain bikers parking outside the park's boundaries and riding in to access single-track trails.
"If we see a car, we'll issue a compliance request," Havel said. "It's the lowest level of us asking, but if we see repeat offenders, it can escalate."
Other places with issues include coastal spots north of Lincoln City, "that's going to be the new hotspot," Havel said. Even the Banks-Vernonia Trail has seen some roadside parking and people getting out on the trail.
People getting stuck in remote areas cause search and rescue headache
The problems aren't limited to Oregon's popular parks.
Oregon's national forest roads, where the closure includes developed recreation sites but not the forest as a whole, have seen an uptick of people getting stuck on remote roads.
Forest Service officials in Detroit said they made contact with 100 people in two days driving toward snow-covered roads, and a spike in search and rescue requests.
"Search and rescue require significant time and effort and increases the risk for our local communities,” Mt. Hood National Forest Clackamas River District Ranger Jackie Groce said.
And so, another two places were closed: Breitenbush Road 46 and McCoy Creek Road, both outside Detroit.
It's another sign that state officials are taking the closures seriously as a way to keep people home.
How long will this last?
The mechanism keeping the closures in place is largely Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's "stay home, save lives" order.
Once it's lifted, many of the outdoor closures are likely to be lifted as well.
Havel said they're planning to look at where the state stands in late April or early May.
"Ultimately, how long it lasts will be determined in part by Oregonians," he said. "Because it's going to come down to how well we're doing at limiting the spread of the virus."
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article was originally published by the Statesman Journal, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.