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Democrats press Trump administration over plan to reopen national parks 

Democrats press Trump administration over plan to reopen national parks 
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are questioning the Trump administration over its plan to reopen "as rapidly as possible" certain national parks that closed amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE said his administration would begin to reopen national parks and public lands. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a tweet that the president told him to “promptly restore access to our magnificent national parks.”

Critics have expressed concern that allowing crowds to gather at the parks could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. 

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Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee questioned the Interior Department in a Monday letter about its timeline and criteria for opening parks and public lands. 

“In spite of these concerns and the rising number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., the administration has continued to encourage public lands visits without implementing clear protocols to ensure the health and safety of visitors and employees,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“In the face of this unprecedented crisis, it is crucial that any decisions to reopen national parks and other public land sites prioritize the health and safety of visitors, employees, and local communities and that they are guided by directives from public health experts and local officials,” they added. 

Due to concerns about the virus, a number of national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstonehave temporarily closed, while others have remained open.

In response to the letter, Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson told The Hill in an email that "the health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners continues to be our highest priority."

"Every operational change made at a national park or on our public lands during this pandemic has been led by federal, state and local public health officials. In following current federal, state and local public health guidance, the NPS [National Park Service] continues to examine each facility function and service, ensuring our actions to increase access are done in a safe manner," Swanson added. 

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Bernhardt separately said in a statement over the weekend that his department and the National Park Service “are working to reopen the American people’s national parks as rapidly as possible.”

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers and partners continues to be paramount,” he said. “Across the 500 million acres of public lands stewarded by the Department of the Interior, an overwhelming majority of these lands have remained safely accessible to the American public.”

The first phase of the White House’s plan to reopen the country says that in public places such as parks, individuals should “maximize physical distance from others.” 

In recent weeks, Democratic lawmakers have been among those who have advocated for closing certain national parks due to concerns linked to the virus.