Salt River

It might be hard to enforce social distancing for tubers once they’re afloat on the Salt River but they’ll have to wear masks when they’re on the bus that takes them from the parking lot to the water.

For about a month, tubers, boaters and others seeking to cool down on nearly 100-degrees days flouted Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order and Tonto National Forest’s parking restrictions.

Their rebellion against measures designed to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, apparently based upon soaring temperatures and boredom rather than politics, plunged the normally picturesque Lower Salt River into traffic and parking chaos.

Salt River Tubing and the popular Blue Point Recreation Area were part of a long list of closures ordered by Tonto officials to discourage large crowds from congregating.

But as temperatures rose, the tubers and boaters came anyway – even though there was no place to legally park.

Hundreds of cars were parked illegally along Bush Highway north of Mesa despite a considerable and obvious law enforcement presence. 

While tubers carried rafts and floatation devices for long treks up and down rolling hills to the river, five or six Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies stuck orange tickets on their cars, scrawling the ominous message “tow zone’’ on them.

A group of tubers, who appeared to be in their 20s, said they were bored, because so many other forms of entertainment were closed or unavailable.

Robin, who did not give her last name, said she wanted to cool off from the heat. 

“We’re going to risk it,’’ said Ryan Gates, another tuber who came to the river with Robin and a couple of other friends. 

Another young woman simply said, “because we’re stupid,’’ when a reporter pointed out the heavy police presence.

Sgt. Bryant Vanegas, an MCSO spokesman, said the parking issue had become an ongoing problem near Blue Point. 

He said the cars were being ticketed for parking illegally, but no one had been towed even though they were parking in a tow zone.

“The temperatures are getting up there right now. That’s when people are going to the lake,’’ he said.

The pandemonium may soon fade, however, as the area settles into its usual pattern of summertime fun and revelry.

But this time with a dose of social distancing added to the mix.

After Ducey announced last Tuesday that he was letting his stay-at-home order expire, Salt River Tubing announced it is now open for the season – just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

The Tonto National Forest also announced that it is lifting closures in virtually all developed recreation areas.

But it warned visitors that overcrowding is likely and said visitors permits will be required at the many fee areas in the forest, including Blue Point.

“In conjunction with Governor Ducey’s phased reopening of Arizona, we are opening many popular sites on the forest for public use and enjoyment,” Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth said in a release issued Thursday. 

“We recognize the importance of providing recreational opportunities to forest visitors while providing for the safety of our employees and the public,” he said.

“We ask visitors to avoid crowded areas and parking illegally. Over the past month, the entire forest has seen unprecedented visitation numbers,’’ Bosworth said. 

“While opening additional recreation sites will help address crowding and parking issues, we anticipate visitation will continue to exceed capacity in some areas.’’

Bosworth asked visitors to be good stewards of the land by leaving no trace behind. He also asked visitors to follow social distancing guidelines. 

The opening of Salt River Tubing gives the tubers a better option than parking illegally – but they also will have to follow social distancing.

By lifting the closures, Tonto is eliminating an unusual situation in which trails, rivers and lakes were technically open to public use, but access was greatly restricted.

“People are drawn to the water when it gets hotter. We have not closed the forest,’’ Anne Thomas, a Tonto spokeswoman, said during the closures.

 “I think what’s happening is they see one car; they park behind it and it gains momentum.’’

She said that nationwide, public lands are experiencing an uptick in visitation, with a lack of other recreational choices during the pandemic contributing to that trend.

Thomas said the forest does not formally track visitation numbers, but that longtime employees have reported that they have never seen larger crowds.

“People have their favorite places,’’ Thomas said. “I know people are trying to get to the water.’’

Lynda Breault, a spokeswoman for Salt River Tubing, a permittee of Tonto, said she was notified by a ranger in an email that her company was “good to go’’ for opening its 40th anniversary season on Saturday.

“We are very excited about opening and hoping the public will cooperate with us’’ about social distancing, she said. “It’s almost an experiment.’’

Visitors park in the Salt River Tubing parking lot for $19 plus tax per person to use a tube and to take a shuttle bus to the river and back to their car. Salt River Tubing will pass out a bandana to everyone who wants to use their service. All visitors will be required to use the bandana or some other face mask during the roundtrip bus ride. 

“They are free bandanas we’re giving to everyone. We’re saying, hang onto it,’’ Breault said, because it is also required for the ride back to the car.

She suggested that tubers wear the bandanas around their necks during their ride on the river. 

“We want to keep our employees safe as well as our guests. We are encouraging them to be responsible,’’ Breault said.

She said she witnessed some “backlash’’ at Costco, which is requiring employees and shoppers alike to wear face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but she decided to still require the face coverings. Anyone who refuses to wear the bandana will be denied service.

“It’s your choice. To go tubing with us, your choice is contingent on wearing the bandana,’’ Breault said.

She said other social distancing measures will include limiting the number of passengers per bus to 15, even though the buses seat as many as 72 passengers.

But only last week, on May 9, there was little or no evidence that the tubers were paying attention to the CDC guidelines. They were clustered in groups, including a family with small children. Swimming trunks, bikinis, tank tops and flip flops were way more popular than masks.

In anticipation to opening day, Breault said she was sending crews to the area near the Blue Point Recreation Area to clean up the trash left behind by the tubers who defied the parking restrictions. 

“We want the river to be clean and beautiful, like we left it,’’ at the end of last summer, Breault said.

Ducey gradually has allowed restaurants, hair salons, retail stores and health clubs to re-open, but only if they adopt social distancing measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“This doesn’t mean to return to normal. This is the next step forward,’’ Ducey said. “I would like them to feel safe, based upon the gradual decisions we have made over time.’’

But while the transmission of COVID-19 appears to have slowed, the death toll continues to mount, with 624 deaths in Arizona through Thursday morning, 781 patients still hospitalized, and 201 on a ventilator.

“We are making gradual, responsible decisions along the way. What an Arizonan decides to do is up to them,’’ Ducey said.