Social-distancing visitors flood national parks, creating new coronavirus concern

Social-distancing visitors flood national parks, creating new coronavirus concern
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Visitors are flooding national parks, forcing the closure of Yellowstone National Park and leading to worries that the areas could become breeding grounds for the coronavirus. 

National parks have seen a surge in visitors as they have dropped entry fees, and as people have stayed home from work and school as a result of social distancing policies meant to get the virus’s spread under control.

But the rush to the parks, which some have compared to busy summer seasons, has prompted new concerns about the spread of the virus while creating serious problems for the parks themselves.

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Last week, a double line of cars could be seen entering Arches National Park in Utah. It extended for at least a quarter-mile from the park’s entrance, The Salt Lake Tribune reported

Thousands of visitors descended upon Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, local reports said. The park said in a tweet that Saturday’s visitors hadn’t followed social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Parts of Point Reyes National Seashore in California closed after what the National Park Service (NPS) described as "unprecedented visitation."

In Washington D.C., the NPS urged people to stay away from the Tidal Basin after large groups of people attempted to view flowering cherry blossom trees. 

The flood of visitors came at the invitation of the Trump administration, which in waiving entrance feels last week at parks that remained open said it would  make it “a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks.” 

Health experts have said it is good to get exercise even for strengthening the immune system, but they have said the coronavirus can be spread by crowds descending on open-air areas, including national parks.

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The CDC advises that people should avoid being in close contact with each other in communities where the virus is spreading.

“People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus,” said Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University.

Freeman particularly raised concerns about people who are traveling out of state to go to national parks and spreading the virus across state lines. 

“New York, Washington state, California have taken aggressive steps to try to contain the local outbreak, but people are leaving those outbreaks to go to places with less restrictive guidance which means that you may see the virus hotspots moving from some of these areas to areas where the guidance is more lax,” he said. 

Parks advocates are also raising concerns about the health of staff.

Phil Francis, the chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, raised concerns that high parks attendance could pose risks to visitors, employees and neighboring communities. 

Francis, who is also the former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said national parks should have been “totally closed unless the superintendents could justify their opening.” 

Some parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountains, have closed due to coronavirus concerns. But according to the National Park Service, more than 300 are at least partly open. 

“I’m receiving calls from park workers who are concerned about their health and the health of their coworkers,” Francis said. 

He added that people flocking to these sites during the offseason may catch parks off guard and understaffed. 

“This time of year is not the time of year when parks have all their employees on board. The busy summer season is usually when the parks are their most crowded and many parks rely upon seasonal maintenance employees,” he said, adding that this creates problems with “garbage and vandalism.”

He added that restroom closures can present an issue, saying that people will go to the bathroom in the parks themselves if they can’t access the facilities. 

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The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks was one of several groups that recently put out statements chastising the administration's move to waive the fees at parks, saying that people should not be encouraged to visit. 

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department oversees NPS, said in a statement announcing the waived fees that “our vast public lands ... offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said it was “cavalier at best and profoundly dangerous at worst to encourage public lands visits without encouraging all visitors to avoid crowding of high-traffic areas and popular parks.”

NPS told The Hill in a statement this week that decisions to change operations are being made on a “park-by-park basis by the respective superintendent, using the most current guidance from state and local health authorities.”

“Where possible, most park grounds are accessible and we urge visitors to adhere to CDC guidance and practice Leave No Trace principles, including pack-in and pack-out, to keep outdoor spaces and themselves safe and healthy,” the agency said.