Should you visit the national parks during the pandemic?

With springtime weather in full swing, it makes sense that people who have been quarantined in their homes for the past several weeks want to get out for some fresh air and exercise. And, as many are likely postulating, what better place than one of the nation’s beautiful national parks?

Traveling long distances or out of state is discouraged for obvious reasons during the pandemic. But with hundreds of national parks across the country still open to the public—around 269 out of 419, as of May 7—surely it couldn’t hurt to visit those parks that happen to be located nearby? 

As with many situations in the age of the coronavirus, general safety guidelines vary. The National Park Service (NPS) asks the public to recreate safely and responsibly while avoiding high-risk outdoor activities, staying in your local area, and following Leave No Trace principles—as outlined by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. It’s also advised that those seeking outdoor recreation follow CDC guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and to also comply with state and local ordinances.

However, the NPS notes that due to congestion and overcrowding, it has become increasingly difficult to adhere to CDC and local public health guidelines regarding social distancing while visiting some national parks. As such, the NPS has been forced to make difficult decisions in placing restrictions over some park grounds, including popular trails and overlooks. Visitors are urged to plan visits during off-hours and to maintain responsible social distance from other visitors.

“Many parks are designed in a way to move visitors, keep them on trails, and keep them on roads,” National Parks Conservation Association Vice President of government affairs Kristen Brengel told Scientific American. “Parks inherently funnel people to see overlooks and waterfalls and rivers. People stop at various points to view the wonderful scenery. They’re more conducive to people gathering. Parks are built for visitation.”

“It’s understandable that people want to get outdoors,” she added. “But the risk of spreading the coronavirus is a steep price for recreation.”

“Taking a rigorous walk in the fresh air is healthy, as long as it’s not in a group and you’re spaced apart,” echoed Dr. Janis Orlowski, the chief healthcare officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

It’s not just about your personal safety

One of the primary concerns of organizations such as the National Community Pharmacists Association—which has urged that national parks remain closed throughout the pandemic—is that it has been “nearly impossible” for park staff to protect themselves while doing their jobs, because many lack proper protective equipment. “Park staff cannot protect their health, the health of the visitors, or the resources they manage,” said NCPA president and CEO Theresa Pierno in a recent statement

Indeed, by the beginning of April alone, the Washington Post reported that seven national park employees had been infected with COVID-19.

In addition to general CDC guidelines, protect your safety and the safety of others during visits to national parks by practicing common-sense precautions—such as washing and/or sanitizing your hands after touching surfaces like gates, fences, and door handles; avoiding other people when possible, especially in groups; and not using picnic tables or other outdoor amenities if you aren’t able to effectively sanitize them first.

On May 9, Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border opened, and according to the Associated Press, people from dozens of states flocked to the area. It sounds like many of the visitors didn’t adhere to the new guidelines.

“It seemed like people were not respecting our suggestion that they avoid crowded areas,” park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.

Sources: National Park Service, AARP, Scientific American, Washington Post, Associated Press

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