NJ residents flock outside as vaccine earns free state parks

As New Jersey residents prepare to hit the outdoors for the Fourth of July, the state’s parks are already seeing an explosion in popularity, with more than 100,000 people signing up for annual park passes as part of New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine incentive

ISLAND BEACH STATE PARK, N.J. -- As New Jersey residents prepare to head outdoors for the Fourth of July, the state's parks are already seeing an explosion in popularity, with more than 100,000 people signing up for annual park passes as part of New Jersey's COVID-19 vaccine incentive.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy announced in May that any state resident who has at least one shot by July 4 can get a free state parks pass, which would cost $50 for residents this year.

The 100,000 signups is up from nearly 50,000 earlier this month, weeks after the program was announced, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees New Jersey’s parks. It dwarfs the roughly 5,000 annual passes typically purchased in a year.

Although it’s not clear how many people were motivated to become vaccinated by the free parks pass, the state eclipsed its goal of 4.7 million vaccinations last week amid the allurement.

The COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 already had more people heading outdoors, as the number of Americans who went hiking last year rose by 8.1 million, the largest one-year gain on record, according to the Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Outdoor Industry Association.

On a recent weekday, a parking lot at Island Beach State Park, a 10-mile (16-kilometer) stretch of mostly undeveloped shoreline and one of the state's most popular beaches, was packed but not filled to capacity. The beach-side bar at the park was humming with patrons. Colorful umbrellas flapped in the ocean breeze.

The Department of Environmental Protection urges park-goers to arrive early to be sure of a spot in parks like Island Beach that frequently reach capacity — as passes don’t guarantee entry.

Linda Jakuboski, of Pine Beach, said she's been coming to Island Beach for 35 years and noticed it seemed busier than usual for a weekday. She didn't get the vaccine pass incentive, but did get the shot. If the spike in annual passes leads to crowding, she's prepared to get there early and frequent one of the less crowded sections of the beach.

“I’m just so used to being here. This is home,” she said. “This is like a second home, really.”

Bob Smith, a retiree from nearby Manchester, said he's a newcomer to Island Beach but was impressed enough to buy an annual pass. He didn't get the incentive but did get vaccinated, he said.

If things get crowded, he'll just enjoy the pool at the 55-plus community where he lives, he said. But the crowds weren't a big concern now that more people are vaccinated.

“It's nice to see people's faces,” he said.

Roughly 70% of adults are vaccinated in the state. Most of the COVID-19 restrictions like face masks have ended.

Afaf Muhammad, of Jersey City, has been camping for years and got her two daughters involved with Team Wilderness, a Jersey City-based nonprofit aimed at getting Black and other kids of color outdoors.

She opted not to get the vaccine, but praised the idea of getting more people, especially people of color, outdoors. The Outdoors Foundation study found that three-quarters of people doing outdoor activities are white.

“I think that’s so important for children to be in fresh air. We live in public housing. You don’t really see too many trees and grass here,” she said. “You're not going to see too much real nature. (City) parks aren’t really nature reserves like a state park would be.”

Her daughter Aracelis Hannah is 18, and started Team Wilderness trips five years ago. She, too, opted not to get the vaccine, but said people should take advantage of state parks.

“You don’t know what the wilderness could do to you, to change you … to make you more observant of your surroundings,” she said.

Juan Melli, an avid hiker and senior vice president at the public affairs firm Mercury, said he got the vaccine pass, but would have gotten the vaccine even without the incentive. He's noticed more people on hiking trails around the state since the program started.

“Exposing people to outdoors — I think COVID did that anyway: Your weekend plans are canceled. There's no where to shop so what can you do? You can go outside," he said. “So if it raises awareness that’s great.

“I just hope this gets people thinking more about the outdoors."

Asked whether the state's parks could handle the jump in annual pass holders, DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said in an emailed statement that the parks see millions of visitors a year.

Attendance in 2020 was about 14 million, down from 17 million, though parks were closed for about a month starting in April and admittance was limited because of COVID-19.

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