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Boulder open space system closures on table if crowding continues amid coronavirus pandemic

Officials monitoring impact of actions to limiting close contact taken so far

A packed parking lot and trail at Chautauqua Park on March 25, in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)
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Boulder officials on Tuesday put a city open space system closure on the table as a potential step to ensure compliance with social distancing requirements meant to slow the global coronavirus spread locally, but less stringent measures are going to be tried first.

City leaders are also continuing to struggle with dispersing gatherings of sizes against public health recommendations at private residences throughout Boulder, especially among University of Colorado students.

Officials have received requests for an open space closure, as open space visitation is booming in good weather even on weekdays, which is atypical for this time of year.

“Closure is something that on the sidelines we are putting plans together for how it would work and how it would be rolled out,” Boulder open space director Dan Burke said. “It couldn’t be done overnight, it would take a series of steps. There are over 254 access points onto our system, we have a very porous system. What we learned from 2013 (during the flood), even if we did officially decide to close the system, we know we’re going to have a lot of noncompliance with that.”

Burke has concerns about Boulder alone closing open space trails and access, without other land management agencies in the region doing the same, and wants to wait and see whether measures recently put into place meant to limit gathering and close contact on city outdoor property have an impact.

Officials estimate that 25% to 30% of open space users are wearing a mask over their mouths and noses, as is recommended by the state as the virus remains on the move.

Actions taken by Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks officials to manage visitation and prevent crowding include some specific closures and increased staff presence at the busiest trails and trail heads.

“Have we done enough? It’s really hard to say at this point. Right now, what we’re seeing in terms of compliance is there is not enough in our system at certain locations,” Burke said.

Others measures under consideration for open space are requiring dogs to always be on leashes where dogs are allowed, weather-dependent weekend closures at targeted locations, increasing enforcement of problematic or especially egregious behavior regarding social distancing violations, reducing parking capacities at high-visitation trails, and establishing one-way directional travel on several popular trails.

“We could, in our education, like our signage at trail heads and things like that, employ the old parenting technique of, ‘Don’t make me take this system away from you, if y’all don’t start acting better,’” Councilman Aaron Brockett said.

Boulder resident Dan Seaton had an immediate reaction to the potential of the open space closures after reporters learned of the possibility. Getting outdoors while remaining at least 6 feet from others has repeatedly been blessed as OK by authorities and even encouraged for maintaining mental health amid stay-at-home orders.

“This would be really awful,” Seaton tweeted. “Is there any evidence of community spread due to incidental contact outdoors? Boulder open space is a critical resource for people who do not have outdoor space at home, so the loss of this access would inequitably hurt poorer folks who need it.”

City Council mulled requesting local authorities take a more stringent approach with gatherings on public and private properties.

City Attorney Tom Carr stressed the effectiveness of education rather than punitive enforcement of the rules.

“The parties on (University) Hill, the police are doing what they can to cut those back,” Carr said. “The gatherings prohibition only applies outside residences, and residences are not defined and I’m not sure you can bring a case to say that people can’t gather in a front yard under the language of the state public health order. … I think the police do a remarkable job of convincing people to change their behavior. I think we’ve seen a high level of compliance.”

Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer clarified parties are not just an issue on the Hill, but throughout the city. In March, police handled 25 noise complaints, the primary dispatch category for large parties. So far in April, they have handled more than 60.

“With everyone home, people are becoming a bit stir-crazy, and noise complaints are going up and parties in general are happening throughout the city. It’s not just about the Hill,” Weinheimer said.

City leaders are working with university leaders on the issue, including preliminary talks on reporting student violators of social distancing mandates and recommendations through the CU Boulder student conduct office.

“We are hearing a lot from people on the Hill that there are frequent violators that are not being deterred. The police come, they all talk to them, they all smile, the police go away and the party resumes right away,” Councilwoman Rachel Friend said. “I do imagine it’s very frustrating for the neighbors to feel like they may be in increased harm’s way because the virus could be spreading right on their block.”

Officials are also analyzing whether to close some streets to traffic, as Denver has done in some areas. Boulder staff is reviewing safe recreational space availability in communities, exploring the availability and cost of traffic control needed for closures and plans to report findings back to Council next week.

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