Energy & Environment

Push to reopen national parks sparks pandemic concerns

National parks are starting to reopen as they seek to balance public safety concerns about the coronavirus with responding to the White House’s push to start reopening sites.

Ahead of the busy summer season for national park visits, Everglades National Park in Florida reinstated access to certain roads on Monday as well as reopening a store and several restrooms, though it is keeping other roads and its visitor centers closed. The Associated Press reported that boaters had lined up to get in at 7 a.m. and were allowed into the water one at a time. 

The plan is part of a phased approach to opening national parks after President Trump pushed last month for sites to reopen. The opening of the Everglades comes as states, including Florida, are gradually starting to restart their economies in the hopes that coronavirus infections have peaked.

But public health experts are raising concerns that an influx of guests to parks could lead to increased infections while making it harder to track the virus as out-of-state visitors arrive.

Susan Michaels-Strasser, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University, told The Hill that she believes reopening the parks might be “premature.”

“We’re still deep in the midst of a pandemic,” Michaels-Strasser said, adding that the decision to open the parks would require a balance of factors such as the capacity to respond to an uptick in cases and the adoption of widespread testing.  

“A lot of pieces of the puzzle have to come together to give the public health systems the data needed to know if it’s getting worse or if it’s getting better or staying the same, and right now those systems are not in place,” she said. 

The push to reopen parks comes after Trump said on Earth Day on April 22 that he wanted to reopen some of the country’s national parks that had shut down their operations in response to the pandemic.

“Thanks to our significant progress against the invisible enemy, I am pleased to announce that in line with my administration’s guidelines for opening up America again we will begin to reopen our national parks and public lands for the American people to enjoy,” he said. 

The National Park Service (NPS) is now moving ahead, saying it will implement a phased opening across its parks and pledging to carefully monitor the potential health impact from increased visits to its sites.

As of Monday, Florida had 36,889 coronavirus cases and 1,398 deaths, according to a count from The New York Times.

Ahead of its limited opening, Everglades said in a news release that its “operational approach will be to examine each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance.” The release did not list any specific safety measures that would be put in place at open facilities. 

On Saturday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along the Tennessee and North Carolina border, will also reopen some of its roads and trails. 

A statement on the opening said that the park will take certain safety measures including disinfecting restrooms and public buildings, installing plexiglass shields at visitor centers and giving personal protective equipment to maintenance workers. 

Other national parks including Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park have said they are working on “phased” reopening plans, responding to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s call last month to reopen the parks “as rapidly as possible.”

The plans are being implemented at a time of widespread concerns that some states are opening too soon, while businesses are grappling with worries that people will still stay at home given the lack of widespread coronavirus testing.

Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins school of public health, raised concerns about the impact park visitors could have on the health care systems where the parks are located. 

“The last thing any community wants is an influx of people from all over the place into their community that might increase demands on services and perhaps lead to an increase in the risk of disease for that community,” said Burke, who also served in the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, Michaels-Strasser from Columbia said that reopening the parks too early could make the virus harder to track because waves of out-of-state visitors to national parks will complicate contact tracing because every state has its own system. 

“The complexity of it increases exponentially,” she said. “You’re dealing with multiple departments, multiple agencies. Connecting the dots just gets harder and harder the more movement that is happening.”

The NPS told The Hill in a statement that the health and safety of its visitors, employees and partners “continues to be paramount.”

“We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public and workspaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners, and volunteers,” the agency said. “We will continue to monitor all park functions to ensure that visitors adhere to CDC guidance for mitigating risks associated with the transmission of COVID-19, and take any additional steps necessary to protect public health.”

Among NPS employees, 29 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, HuffPost reported last week. 

On Monday, a group of current and former NPS employees and volunteers issued a statement saying that it is “too soon” to reopen the parks. 

“Parks must be able to demonstrate that they have adequate staff to protect resources, personal protective equipment available to those staff members, and employee training including specific training related to COVID-19,” said the statement from Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

Francis, who is also the former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, added that the Trump administration should not try “to win short term political gains by rushing to reopen national parks at the expense of human health and safety.”

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