Visitors Surging To National Parks, Forcing More To Close Due to Coronavirus Concerns

Jefferson Memorial cherry blossom trees  March 22, 2020    Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP

Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Smoky Mountains National Parks closed on Tuesday due to coronavirus concerns, joining Yosemite National Park, and the Statue of Liberty because of concerns of crowding in public spaces leading to spread of the disease.  People have flooded into the parks — the government has eliminated entry fees — and because people are home from work and school, crowd sizes are like those usually only seen during summer months

Why This Matters:  As is true with so much of the Trump Administration’s attitude toward containing the spread of the virus, they have left each Park to decide on its own, causing confusion and sending mixed signals to the public and leaving local officials struggling to respond. Many condemned the Interior Secretary because he encouraged people to visit Parks by waiving the fees and said he wanted to make it “a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks.”  The hospitals nearby many Parks are small and in remote locations and are very concerned about being overwhelmed with patients contracting the virus — some doctors even begged for Park closures.  Erring on the side of caution at the very least might have led to fewer crowds.

Crowds Are A Problem At Gateway Communities

It is not just the Parks that people are worried about.  The small, gateway communities that sit right outside of Park entrances are also impacted, but not able to make the decision on whether to close a Park and worried about how they will handle the crowds.  According to High Country News, “[g]rocery stores in the rural West, as in the rest of the country, are struggling to stay stocked, bathroom facilities will need cleaning, and the more visitors there are, the greater chance for injuries that might need to be treated in rural hospitals — hospitals that lack the capacity to treat them.”  Last week, doctors from the  Moab Regional Hospital near Arches National Park sent a letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to “implore” him “to shut down all non-essential business service in Moab,” due to a lack of hospital beds and no local intensive care unit.  Hotels in the area near Arches last weekend were estimated to be between 75-95% capacity leading local officials to worry that “tourism would drive the spread” of COVID-19.

The Hill reported on three other Parks that became overwhelmed. Apparently thousands of people visited Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park,  according to local reports, and the park tweeted that Saturday’s visitors hadn’t followed social distancing guidelines.  Similarly, Point Reyes National Seashore in California also closed in part after what the National Park Service (NPS) described as “unprecedented visitation.”  The Jefferson Memorial’s cherry blossom trees now in full bloom also drew huge crowds in Washington, D.C. last weekend.

To Go Deeper: We recommend this piece in National Geographic that explains that at a time like this, it might be best to stay away from National Parks.  H/T to #FOP Gary K

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