Bear Lake cars

Cars parked on roadway on a recent weekend.

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Is Bear Lake dangerously overcrowded this summer?

Some people think so. And while many locals would beg to differ — especially business owners — one thing is clear: The COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to hurt tourism at the popular lake straddling the Utah-Idaho border and might even be boosting it. Beaches are busy throughout the week, campsites are full, boats are out in force and seasonal workers are handing the area’s iconic raspberry shakes through walk-up windows as fast as they can whip them up.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and there’s probably as many people up here as I’ve ever seen, I mean steadily,” said Rich County Sheriff Dale Stacey. “My opinion about the crowds, and I don’t have anything to back this up, is that the media is talking about there not being COVID up here, and also some of the other tourist places may be partially shut down. Airline tickets are harder to get, and so I think people are coming here to enjoy themselves, which is a good thing, but that brings with it its own problems, and one of those problems is crowdedness.”

Garden City Mayor Mike Leonhardt likes what he sees.

“Our businesses, whether they’re in Garden City or surrounding the lake, you know they have three or four months to really make enough money to pay their bills year-round, so this is what they need,” he said. Asked if he thinks this tourist season is busier than in past years, he said no but acknowledged the season did get off to an earlier start than usual due to people abandoning urban areas at the beginning of the pandemic to stay in their second homes around the lake.

Leonhardt rejected the idea that the crowds are becoming a danger and a nuisance — something voiced by some people on social media recently, along with a resident who sent an email and photos of the crowding to The Herald Journal.

“I feel it’s important to point out we have major overcrowding in Bear Lake on the Utah and Idaho side,” wrote the year-round resident, who asked not to be identified. “People are flocking here and not following street signs that say no parking 15 feet of the road and no parking on the side of the road for the next 4 miles. It’s become a safety hazard for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

She went on to express frustration that few visitors, from her observation, are following social-distancing guidelines:

“We have already been affected by the fact that most of us don’t even want to go into our local stores to pick up a gallon of milk because most people who go in don’t have a mask on (young and old). We know that everyone loves Bear Lake, but we wish that people would obey the parking signs, have respect for others and follow the guidelines and recommendations of the governor and the CDC.”

Mayor Leonhardt disputed this, saying he’s witnessed mostly the opposite.

“I’m out and about in town all the time and I see people wearing their masks all the time — the tourists are wearing masks, the store owners, the employees. Are we going to run onto people that don’t wear them? Of course.” Leonhardt said. But he quickly added that seeing groups of people close together without masks doesn’t necessarily imply irresponsibility, since many are members of the same family who live together.

Somewhere between all the clashing views on the situation sits Bear Lake State Park Manager Richard Droesbeke, who does think it’s been busier than normal this summer and does see some problems associated with the crowds. He’s not sounding an alarm on social distancing, however, mostly because he and his crew have been too busy managing the rush to give it much attention.

“I’ve been the park manager going on 14 years now, and July 3 and July 4 were probably the two busiest days that I’ve seen for just the number of people that were trying to access the lake,” he said. “The whole Bear Lake Valley is seeing more people up here … and people are parking in places that in the past we haven’t seen people park.”

Like the anonymous emailer, Droesbeke points to the area just north of the marina as a major trouble spot. “The road between the marina and the Boy Scout camp is just packing people in. They park so close to the white line on the road that it causes a lot of concern,” he said.

In addition to creating a traffic hazard, the roadside crowds are leaving a lot of trash between their cars and the lake, Droesbeke said, noting there are no trash receptacles or outdoor toilets in the area, which the state park doesn’t control.

The unauthorized roadside parking has caught the attention of Sheriff Stacey, but he said his department is reluctant to crack down on visitors when they simply have no other choice.

“Right or wrong, my policy has been if they’re off the road, if they’re over on the right side of the fog line and they’re not blocking people’s vision and they’re behaving, we haven’t bothered them too much,” he said. “I can’t tow 400 cars anyway. … When it becomes an issue where it’s impeding traffic or causing traffic issues, then we do deal with that, but we try to be careful and not just bother people because we can.”

Exacerbating the roadside congestion are recently lowered vehicle limits in the parking areas for Rendezvous Beach on the south side of the lake and North Beach on the Idaho side of the lake — both implemented by authorities in the respective states to enhance social distancing.

The plan could be backfiring, however, because the beaches are seeing more people per vehicle since the limits were imposed, according to Droesbeke.

Bear Lake State Park has tried to spread the crowds out by encouraging use of often-overlooked beach areas fronting the campgrounds east of Rendezvous Beach, but the whole stretch is now filling to capacity each weekend even with the parking restrictions.

Signs throughout the park in both English and Spanish encourage social distancing, but it’s primarily an honor system.

“We don’t really have a lot of time to police it because we’re out directing traffic and parking cars and turning people away,” Droesbeke said. “We still have to do our boating safety on the lake. That keeps us pretty thin. If we do get complaints about social distancing, we do try to go address the issues.”

Mayor Leonhardt argues beach crowding can be deceptive from a ground-level view and that Bear Lake beachgoers are doing a good job of spreading out, despite appearances.

“If you just stand on the beach and take a picture, it looks like it’s way crowded, but if you get above that and take the picture, you can actually see the distance between people,” he said.

Rich County has only seen five recorded cases of COVID-19 during this year’s pandemic, with no deaths. On the Idaho side of the lake, Bear Lake County has recorded six cases with no deaths. If tourists are passing it among themselves, it might not be reflected in the numbers since many return to their hometowns after visiting the popular destination.

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