Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order included multiple exemptions for essential services such as purchasing food or visiting the doctor. But it also provides a notable exemption for outdoor recreation while practicing social distancing.
As social distancing became a phrase emphasized by health experts in response to the novel coronavirus, social media pages filled up with what many Montanans naturally do: go outside and cross country ski, fish or hike in areas sparsely visited by people, with many describing the activities as social distancing “Montana-style.” Now that residents have been directed to stay home, the outdoor recreation exemption represents a notable departure from other parameters of the order, such as limiting travel to essentials. But officials believe outdoor recreation can still be done safely so long as crowded areas are avoided and social distancing is observed when encountering others.
Montanans should avoid unnecessary travel per the directive and do any outdoor recreating close to home, the governor's communications director Marissa Perry said. Extensive travel to destinations for recreation strains local infrastructure for essential services, and potentially can exacerbate challenges meeting core needs for rural communities, from food to health care.
“Governor Bullock’s directive recognizes that open spaces and public lands offer significant public health and recreational benefits and that they are essential to Montanans as we work to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in our state,” she said. “The governor encourages Montanans to recreate on these lands responsibly by adhering to social distancing requirements, avoiding crowded trailheads, and enjoying public lands near the community in which they live. Our friends and neighbors are counting on all Montanans to do the right thing.”
Perry said outdoor-oriented businesses such as guiding and outfitting were not considered essential under the order.
“We do not want to encourage destination recreation or any recreation that may create new burdens on infrastructure, health care or local resources,” she said.
The governor's office also discourages high-risk outdoor behavior that might require emergency medical services, which would stress the health-care system in the state.
While many public lands remain open, national parks have closed in recent days, as have many federal recreation sites such as Forest Service campgrounds and cabins.
On Friday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced changes to allowable activities at some of its recreation areas.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll be closing sites completely – it’ll be a little more precise than that,” said FWP spokesman Greg Lemon. “It’ll be things like you might not be able to camp, but you’ll still be able to use sites for day-use.”
State parks, fishing access sites and wildlife management areas remain open with the following restrictions:
- Overnight camping will not be allowed. Campgrounds will be systematically closed, giving current campers 72-hour notice.
- Group use sites will be closed, including playgrounds.
- Visitor center closures will be extended at least through April 10.
- Bathrooms at many locations will be limited due to public and employee safety concerns, because of the current lack of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Sites will be regularly patrolled by enforcement staff.
- Specific sites may close to address groups gathering, public health and safety, FWP employee safety or resource damage.
With the governor’s new order, FWP has fielded phone calls from people asking many different questions, including whether restrictions in other states could come to Montana. For example, the state of Washington prohibited fishing to limit the spread of COVID-19, but Montana has had no such discussions, Lemon said.
At this time, regularly scheduled hunting seasons have not been canceled. This includes spring turkey season, which starts April 11, and spring bear season, which starts April 15. However, hunters should practice social distancing and all COVID-19 response directives from the governor, including limiting group gatherings.
To limit contact, FWP also suggests that hunters call private landowners to ask for permission rather than meet in-person.
“These are trying times for everyone, and we all know that going outside is one important way to stay healthy,” FWP director Martha Williams said in a statement. “Like the governor, I trust Montanans to understand the importance of social distancing while recreating outside. Stay close to home when looking for a place to recreate, and please follow the governor’s directives.”
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin