Three people back-to-back were cited Sunday on suspicion of illegally driving onto a closed road in San Juan County to recreate in the San Juan Mountains, with suspects going so far as to throw emergency signs, cones and barricades into the bushes.
San Juan County, home to the small town of Silverton, which has about 600 residents, has been under Gov. Jared Polis’ safer-at-home regulations, which has a mandate that says people cannot travel more than 10 miles for recreation.
With Ouray and Durango around 23 and 40 miles away, respectively, San Juan County remains closed to outsiders looking to recreate. A local health order in March that has since expired also prohibited nonessential travel into the county.
Aside from some verbal and written warnings, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t had to enforce the travel ban.
That is until Sunday, Sheriff Bruce Conrad said.
Authorities were notified of a couple hiking in the area of San Juan County Road 7 (Forest Service Road 585), which accesses the San Juan National Forest and the popular Ice Lakes hiking trail.
But with the U.S. Forest Service closing all its campgrounds in Colorado in March, San Juan County closed County Road 7 at U.S. Highway 550 to make sure people stayed out.
About eight to 10 days ago, signs that say the road is closed were erected, along with traffic cones and an A-frame barrier.
As authorities arrived at County Road 7, they noticed the closed sign and traffic cones had been tossed into nearby bushes and the barrier had been moved off to the side of the road.
Deputies found the couple near the Ice Lakes Trailhead and learned they were from Denver and about to attempt to hike the popular trail, which remains mostly snow-covered.
“You can’t even get to Ice Lakes right now unless you’re a true backcountry traveler,” Conrad said. “Yet city folks come thinking it’s a short stroll.”
The male driver was cited with violation of a public health order and disregarding a traffic control barrier. Conrad did not immediately provide the identity of the man cited.
As the Sheriff’s Office was escorting the couple out of the area, another car was spotted driving into County Road 7. Conrad said a deputy had set the signs and barriers back up, so it was obvious this person, too, disregarded the closure.
“He had ran over the cones and also tossed the sign to the side of the road,” he said.
The occupants of the car were all from Albuquerque, Conrad said. The driver, too, was cited with violation of a public health order and disregarding a traffic control barrier.
Finally, as Conrad was parked at the turnoff for County Road 7 at U.S. Highway 550 writing up the two reports, a third vehicle pulled into the road. A man stopped at the barriers, got out of the vehicle and threw the cones off to the side of the road.
“I went in and wrote him up,” said Conrad, adding that the man was from Pagosa Springs and also charged with violation of a public health order and disregarding a traffic control barrier.
The charges hold a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and up to 18 months in jail. All three cited drivers have a court date set for Aug. 4.
“I don’t expect our judge will ruin their life in that way,” Conrad said. “But these folks need to be charged seriously.”
Since travel restrictions were put in place in March with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t had to write any tickets. But with the weather becoming nicer, and some communities relaxing restrictions, more people are traveling and venturing into the backcountry.
Conrad said there was a common theme between the three groups he stopped.
“They all thought they were special and the rules didn’t apply to them,” he said.
Conrad doesn’t believe the weekend’s events are an anomaly. Communities are starting to reopen, posing a tricky task for local officials to reopen businesses while at the same time keeping residents safe.
The Sheriff’s Office isn’t citing every out-of-town vehicle entering the county. But, if law enforcement is called to a situation that involves a person illegally in town, they will be cited, Conrad said.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Conrad tracked 62 cars attempting to enter Silverton – 28 cars turned away on their own accord, but 34 had to be talked to and explained the closure. Conrad said two people in cars reacted aggressively.
“Everyone claims not to know about (the closure),” he said. “I don’t understand how you go to another state without taking the time to look online about restrictions, or just bother to read the signs on the side of the road.”
In San Juan County, regulations have been stricter than in most parts of Colorado. But local officials there are slowly starting to reopen, albeit at a more cautioned pace than other parts of the state.
While law enforcement has a strong hold on regulating who enters the town, which is possible because of its geographic setting, it is more difficult and time-consuming for the Sheriff’s Office’s small staff to run around the sizable county finding illegal campers and people recreating.
The small community of Silverton is at particular risk of the coronavirus, local health officials say, because if there were to be an outbreak, it could potentially hamstring the small reserves of emergency responders and medical professionals in the community.
“We’re trying to slowly turn the taps back on and be friendly to visitors,” Conrad said. “But it’s just too soon to open the floodgates to every visitor out there.”
To date, San Juan County has reported just one confirmed positive case of COVID-19, but health officials believe that number is underreported because of a lack of testing, which became available only in the past couple of weeks.