With the majority of Americans hunkered down in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some are turning to outdoor activities to keep themselves healthy — and sane.
To that end, the National Park Service announced on March 18 that it would temporarily waive all park entrance fees indefinitely, As SGB Media noted, the move came one day after the NPS closed several parks because of overcrowding concerns during a time of social distancing. Closed parks include Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Point Reyes the Washington Memorial and the Statue of Liberty.
“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks. … Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”
The NPS website states that “[t]he National Park Service is taking extraordinary steps to implement the latest guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and state authorities to promote social distancing. The NPS is modifying operations, until further notice, for facilities and programs that cannot adhere to this guidance. Where it is possible to adhere to this guidance, outdoor spaces will remain open to the public.”
The NPS also urged visitors to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases when visiting parks by maintaining safe distances between others; washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; and staying home if you feel sick.
Still, some questioned whether the decision to open national parks for free “could backfire by driving larger numbers of visitors to already crowded parks,” HuffPost reported.
Municipalities in states from Hawaii to Connecticut were closing parks — and, in many cases, playgrounds — but others remained open, with officials claiming that getting outside for recreation was beneficial, providing people maintained safe distances.
Medical experts agree. “Running outside remains an incredibly good workout option in the midst of the COVID-19 scare,” Jebidiah Ballard, an emergency room physician, told Insider.com, which provided tips to do so as safely as possible.
Meanwhile, the National Recreation and Park Association is bracing for a surge in the numbers of “people who will want to be outdoors and will use open outdoor areas of parks and trails to keep healthy — physically and mentally — and to provide activities for kids who suddenly have no school and unlimited time without being able to hang with friends,” according to the organization’s website.
NRPA reported early on during the crisis an increase in parks and trails usage and warned against using playgrounds, “because there is no present guidance from CDC on how best to manage these spaces, including recommended cleaning and disinfection for outdoor equipment to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, or recommendations for limiting outdoor play with others.
“Regardless of what advice the public follows on family interactions, park and recreation agencies should be prepared for increased public use of trails and undeveloped areas of parks,” Richard Dolesh, NRPA’s editor-at-large, and Allison Colman, NRPA’s director of health, wrote. They also offered guidance on several issues that might arise as a result of continued and increased public use of parks and trails — including staff guidance, personal protection equipment and social distancing.
“There is no question that this is a fluid and evolving situation,” Dolesh and Colman warned. “The experiences of other countries have shown that more stringent measures may be employed by the government to restrict the use of public spaces and private facilities. This guidance is current today, but park and recreation professionals and agency directors should monitor CDC guidance and local, state and federal updates daily.”