How Should Parks Respond to Coronavirus?

Some state and tribal parks have reacted to the COVID-19 outbreak by closing campgrounds and visitor centers, while the National Park Service is beginning to implement "social distancing" guidelines.
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Monument Valley

Monument Valley was among the parks closed down by the Navajo Nation.

Editor's Note, 3/17/20: The National Park Service will begin implementing social distancing rules in its parks, the agency said on Monday. In a press release, the agency said it would begin "modifying operations" for facilities that couldn't adequately adhere to those guidelines.

"“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is the priority of the National Park Service,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “Park superintendents are empowered to modify their operations, including closing facilities and cancelling programs, to address the spread of the coronavirus.” Where possible, the National Park Service says it will keep outdoor spaces open. 

Original Story: Sunlight and fresh air sound like good remedies for what ails right now, but as coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, even America’s outdoor spaces are beginning to feel the effects. State parks have been closing visitor centers and rolling out other measures to limit close contact among visitors and with their staff. National parks, however, are mostly doing business as usual.

“My sense is that the park service has yet to have a coherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Jonathan Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service.

The park service has closed some units, but the list is short, and mostly confined to historical and urban parks; closures include the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz, and parts of Golden Gate.

In response to an interview request, a National Park Service spokesperson emailed a statement that the agency is “closely monitoring the situation and keeping staff informed” with the most up-to-date information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State and local authorities, the statement continued, “may issue recommendations for specific areas based on local interests.”

Lodges, restaurants, and shuttles are all running with “high standards related to the health and wellness of staff and visitors.” The spokesperson also forwarded the CDC’s advice to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, cover a cough, and stay home if you’re sick.

Asked for details on what might prompt a closure, Stephanie Roulett, acting chief spokesperson and chief of public affairs for the National Park Service only affirmed, “National parks are open.” She could not say whether visitation numbers have changed in the wake of the outbreak, which has prompted federal officials to bar travelers from China, Iran, and Europe.

The Department of Interior does have a Pandemic Influenza Plan that was finalized in 2007, following the avian flu outbreak. The agency’s website says its staff is reviewing that plan. The gist of the lessons from that outbreak, Jarvis says, were that early monitoring, early action, and a quick response were essential. The National Park Service includes an embedded team of public health officials, but he’s heard little from those officials during this outbreak.

The Service seems to be making all decisions out of Washington, D.C., Jarvis adds, even though federal code grants park superintendents the authority to limit public use or close an area or park.

“Let park superintendents make decisions and then inform the public about the decisions they’ve made about closure of visitor centers, gathering places, historic homes, elevators — all the things that force close contact,” he says.

Parks could limit visitors or decontaminate shuttles and ask workers to wash their hands—a spectrum of options before something like an outright closure. Any measures may need to be in place not just for weeks, but for months, as whether this outbreak will wane over the summer remains unclear.

“Getting that balance right between what’s a reasonable reaction and what’s an overreaction is clearly on a lot of people’s minds right now,” says Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at University of California Berkeley.

So far, at least, sharing a trail prompts less concern than sharing a house.

“We assume, with a fair amount of evidence, that transmission will be less of a problem outdoors than indoors,” Reingold says.

While the National Park Service has mostly avoided closures, some state and tribal park officials have been less hesitant to take sweeping action. This weekend, the Navajo Nation closed tribal parks, including Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and the Four Corners Monument, to visitors.

State parks are stepping up cleaning efforts and adjusting operations. In California and Washington, indoor spaces, including visitor centers, interpretive centers, and museums, are closing. Washington is also canceling special permits and restricting the size of groups at campsites and day use shelters. Park staff suggest limiting contact by using self-check in kiosks, printing permits at home, or sending one person into any office. Some are canceling events. Others are removing shared equipment from courses and rental programs.

“We still want to be able to provide people an opportunity to get outdoors, especially when so many things are shut down,” says Anna Gill, communications director for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. “It’s an evolving situation.”

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment tracked “extensive spread” of COVID-19 in a number of mountain resort communities. Following that news, Governor Jared Polis ordered ski areas in the state to close. The health department recommends people who live in or visit the affected counties, including Eagle (home of Vail), Gunnison, Pitkin (Aspen), and Summit, minimize contact with other people even if they’re not experiencing symptoms.

If a “hotspot” has arisen and local health officials are asking all public offices to close, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will consider those requests, but otherwise, they’ll keep offices, parks, and visitor centers open, according to Rebecca Ferrell, a public information and website manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“This is in line with the direction by Gov. Polis for everyone to get outdoors, exercise and get fresh air,” Ferrell wrote in an email.

At least one state—Illinois—has closed all state parks. Another, New Mexico, closed all campgrounds until at least April 9. As New Mexico’s governor banned gatherings of more than 100 (now the CDC recommends avoiding those of more than 50), the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Secretary decided to institute the closure to reduce close contact and opportunities to spread COVID-19. 

John Villanueva, park manager at Villanueva State Park in New Mexico, says he spent Friday morning calling people with campsite reservations for the weekend to let them know not to drive out to the park, about an hour outside Santa Fe.

“Some couldn’t understand why you can come for days, but not to camp," he says. "But for the most part, people were understanding."

Whether or not campgrounds close, Jarvis suggests taking the opportunity to get outdoors when you can.

“There’s nothing in the science at this point that says the outdoors, as long as you maintain distance, is going to convey the virus,” Jarvis says. “If anything, it gives us something to do. Since there’s no sports and you can’t go to restaurants or bars, you can go outside.”

Updates from the National Park Service will be posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus.