Democrat says national park reopening measures 'wholly insufficient to protect public health'

Democrat says national park reopening measures 'wholly insufficient to protect public health'
© Greg Nash

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) says that sufficient safety measures have not been put in place at national parks reopening following coronavirus-related closures. 

After President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE said last month that he wanted to open the parks, locations such as Everglades National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park have taken steps to do so. 

Grijalva, in his Friday letter to the heads of the National Park Service (NPS) and Interior Department, referenced reports of overcrowding.  

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“There have already been reports of overcrowding and visitors entering blocked-off areas that were closed off to comply with federal social distancing guidelines,” he wrote. "At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, parking lots were immediately overfilled by visitors originating from 24 different states, many without masks."

“Evidently, the safeguards the NPS has implemented to protect employee and visitor safety at reopened sites are wholly insufficient to protect public health,” Grijalva added. 

The lawmaker and others on the Natural Resources panel have previously questioned the department on its plans to reopen national parks, writing that 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.”

In response to that prior letter, acting Assistant Interior Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Scott Cameron wrote on May 6 that the administration’s priority has been protecting health and safety while making sure that its operations continue efficiently. 

“Where parks have determined they could not adhere to applicable guidance, the Department has modified operations for buildings, facilities, programs, and units, which included closing parks in some cases,” Cameron wrote. 

“By following this informed approach, an overwhelming majority of the 500 million acres of public lands stewarded by the Department have remained safely accessible to the AmericanPublic,” he added. “I can assure you that the decisions we have made and the priorities we have identified continue to be driven by the paramount goal of the health and safety of the public, our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners.”

Public health experts have previously expressed concern to The Hill about reopening the national parks. They said that doing so could make the virus harder to track if more people are crossing state lines, adding it could strain local health systems.