National parks ask for social distancing after busy weekend

The Interior Department waived entrance fees to make it easier to visit parks.

March 23, 2020, 4:58 PM

National Park Service staff and communities around the national parks issued pleas for the visiting public to consider the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus in national parks, saying that despite the desire to get out of their homes, crowded trails or parking lots could be creating an unnecessary risk for visitors and staff.

Many of the sites operated by the National Park Service have closed completely or blocked public access to certain areas or services where officials determined they couldn't maintain Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to avoid crowds and keep people separate.

But some are mostly open and posted on social media that residents and tourists seemed to flock to the outdoor spaces.

Shenandoah National Park asked on social media that people forego the park’s main trails for less popular areas, saying some areas became so congested they had to be closed.

The National Mall's social media accounts have been sharing photos of the cherry blossoms and asked people not to visit the Tidal Basin area. Local officials have closed roads and public transit to the area, saying on Saturday that it was "increasingly difficult to maintain effective social distancing."

Zion National Park also posted a photo of people hiking a crowded Angels Landing Trail on Saturday and asked visitors to reconsider narrow trails and to practice social distancing.

People crowd together while navigating a narrow hiking trail at Zion National Park in Utah, March 21, 2020, in a photo shared via Twitter by the National Park Service.

The requests seemed to support the concerns of some advocates who criticized the Interior Department's decision last week to suspend entrance fees and welcome visitors to national parks as a respite from their social isolation at home. In that announcement Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called public lands "special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing."

The National Park Service said Monday that the health and safety of employees and visitors are the number one priority and that they are taking "extraordinary steps" to implement the latest CDC guidance.

"As states and local governments announce further efforts to combat COVID-19, decisions on modifications to park operations are being made on a park-by-park basis. Visitor services, other than those of public and resource protection (such as law enforcement and trash removal), will be limited or suspended," the park service said in a statement, adding that they ask visitors to clean up after themselves and that park rangers will remain on duty

But the park service said outdoor spaces will stay open and free to the public as long as they can follow the CDC guidelines, despite criticism from advocates who say the agency should have taken a more aggressive stance to tell people stay away from potential crowds, even in national parks.

"We needed to close in order to reach the goals that most Americans would agree are important, that is to flatten the curve, make sure hospitals have adequate resources and make sure the National Park Service doesn't inadvertently create a bigger problem," said Phil Francis, a former park superintendent and chairman of the Coalition to Protect America's Parks.

The coalition represents hundreds of retired park service employees and Francis said they heard almost immediately from members who were concerned about their colleagues who would continue to work despite calls for people to stay at home and prevent the spread of the virus. Though many parks closed some areas, such as visitor centers, where people could come in close contact, Francis said there are other areas in parks where it is difficult to prevent crowding.

Locals and tourists walk around the tidal basin to see this years cherry blossoms despite the outbreak of novel coronavirus and the social distancing recommendations by the authorities on March 21, 2020, in Washington.
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

"The picture in many people's minds is the great outdoors -- there's plenty of space -- but when you go to find access to that space there's usually a parking lot and there's usually a trail going from the parking lot," he said, adding that paths in parks are designed to guide people to the best views or trails which naturally cause people to gather in those spots.

Francis said despite the temptation to get a break from home, the public should consider the risk to society as a whole and only visit places where they can reasonably follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on limiting contact with others and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance in public.

Communities near national parks have also raised concerns about the current number of visitors, saying they don't have the resources to treat an influx of tourists that could potentially become sick in addition to their own residents.

"These are in many cases rural communities that don't have the facilities to handle a major outbreak if it were to occur and they want to protect the people that live in the county and you do the math and you jut can't handle tourists on top of people that live in the county," said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Brengel said it was irresponsible for the National Park Service to invite people to parks during this pandemic and that they should have been more aggressive about telling people to avoid crowded areas. She described photos of people holding a chain at the top of a narrow trail to keep their footing and said it's up to the park service to tell the public when visiting these spots is too much of a risk.

"People are taking these risks with allowing the public to make these decisions for themselves and I think we're learning after this weekend that parks need to be more proactive," she said

Brengel advised that if people want to visit a national park responsibly at this time to consider if you can follow trails that are off the beaten path or identify areas that are less popular.

"If you're going to a park you're not familiar with and you're relying on a map it's probably better to just reschedule," she added.

She also said public lands where trails are more dispersed than in national parks could be an alternative destination, such as national forests or wildlife refuges managed by the US Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

The National Park Service is asking visitors to follow CDC, state, and local guidelines including social distancing, washing hands often with soap and water, cover your nose and mouth if you cough or sneeze, and stay home if you feel sick.

Individual parks' websites will have information on the latest operating update or information on specific closures.

There are some resources to experience the views of national parks from your home, including 360 degree views to explore from Google Arts and Culture or resources compiled by the National Parks Foundation.

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