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Democratic lawmakers ask Interior to require masks indoors at national parks

Democratic lawmakers ask Interior to require masks indoors at national parks
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House Democrats are pushing the National Park Service (NPS) to require masks as visits to America’s parks surge amid the pandemic.

“We now understand that the Department of the Interior (DOI) is not requiring masks or social distancing at indoor facilities operated by the National Park Service (NPS), even at units located where the surrounding state or local government has instituted a mandatory mask requirement,” lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee including Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wrote in a letter to Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt.

Though national parks are major economic drivers for their surrounding areas, early in the pandemic some park employees and community groups asked NPS to close parks, including the Grand Canyon, rather than risk furthering the spread of the virus. 

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Though cries for closure have simmered down as the pandemic enters its sixth month in the U.S., groups for park employees say they are still concerned for the health of workers and visitors, particularly in parks’ indoor areas.

“The leadership at Interior isn’t being proactive enough to keep staff and visitors safe,” the National Parks Conservation Association wrote in a release.

“Park staff are worried about their health and the safety of visitors, as Interior political appointees continue to push access while refusing to put in place mask policies, even indoors,” the group continued. The group argued that the Interior needs to ensure “effective, commonsense protocols are put in place to ensure the safety of park staff, visitors and surrounding communities.”  

NPS has provided protective gear to employees. Parks have also slashed capacity at campgrounds to help with social distancing.

“All employees and visitors are strongly encouraged to follow federal, state and local public health guidance such as wearing a face covering when social distancing cannot be maintained. This is in every communication from the Department and NPS. All NPS sites have signs up through the parks to highlight this in addition to numerous other mitigation strategies that have been implemented to safely keep these sites accessible,” Interior spokesman Ben Goldey said in an email to The Hill, adding that employee safety is a top priority.

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But lawmakers argue that suggesting masks rather than requiring them is insufficient.

“The current practice of relying on passive signs to encourage mask use and social distancing is not enough. When employees and visitors cannot avoid situations that place them at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, both parties should at least be required to wear masks or other appropriate face coverings consistent with CDC guidelines. Failure to do so could facilitate the spread of coronavirus among visitors, employees’ families, and surrounding communities,” the lawmakers wrote.

The back-and-forth between the committee and Interior is just the latest in a long oversight battle.

The committee’s letter was accompanied by a request for Interior to turn over all documents showing how the agency plans to comply with CDC guidelines as well as any documents outlining its thought process for not requiring masks.

If the park system doesn’t soon change its policy, they said, “please provide documents sufficient to show scientific evidence that the CDC guidance regarding the use of masks or other suitable facial coverings is invalid.”