Connecting state and local government leaders
State parks across the country have limited capacity to encourage social distancing, leading to closures over the weekend as temperatures warmed and people flocked outdoors.
State parks across the country reached capacity and closed over the weekend to facilitate social distancing as homebound residents headed outdoors to take advantage of the season’s first warm weekend.
At least five parks in Utah reached capacity, including Gunlock State Park, where visitors ignored ‘closed’ signs and continued to stream into an overflow area near the reservoir. More than a dozen state parks in Connecticut closed after parking lots filled to capacity. Officials in Massachusetts shuttered multiple parks for two hours at a time in an effort to space out visitors, and at least 14 parks in South Carolina reached capacity by Sunday.
The overcrowding came as parks officials did their best to remind residents to adhere to social-distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In South Carolina, where state parks reopened on Friday after being closed for a month, officials lowered each park’s capacity threshold and outfitted staff members with masks and gloves as a visual reminder to spread out.
“We provided masks and gloves for a lot of our staff now and are asking them to wear them whenever they’re interacting with visitors,” Phil McCormack, director of South Carolina State Parks, said in a TV interview. “We think that masks send a message to our visitors that things are different and that we want everyone to maintain a distance from each other.”
State parks in Connecticut have remained open, with limited capacity, throughout the pandemic for “solitary recreation,” according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. As parks repeatedly reached capacity on days with nice weather, Katie Dykes, the department’s commissioner, began recording videos reminding visitors to wear masks, venture out during off-hours and seek out less popular, “hidden gem” spaces.
“We’re encouraging people, especially when the weather’s nice and we’re going to see a lot of turnout, to come earlier in the day, to choose parks that are less popular,” she said in a video posted Saturday on the department’s Twitter feed. “This is a great time to enjoy or discover new parks you haven’t been to, some that might be a little less discovered.”
Other states had better luck. New Jersey parks reopened on Saturday after being closed for eight weeks, a move Gov. Phil Murphy said he would reverse if residents did not adhere to social distancing. Eight parks reached capacity that day, but Murphy said Sunday he was pleased with how residents complied with the restrictions put in place.
“Compliance was very high in terms of social distancing,” he told Fox News. “That sort of behavior as we flatten the curve...that’s the best weapon we’ve got to get the best outcome.”
And despite sunny warm weather in Wisconsin, not a single state park filled to capacity over the weekend, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The parks, closed by Gov. Tony Evers on April 9, reopened last week to visitors who purchased an annual admission pass. Officials were instructed to stagger admission if a park reached capacity, but none did.
“We were hoping not to use that if at all possible,” Missy Vanlanduyt, a spokeswoman for the agency, told a TV station. “But I think because of people spreading out, maybe listening to some of the different things we put in place, the need for the admissions sticker, all of those things have really helped to spread out visitation.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.