As mild temperatures and spring blooms emerged in southern Utah this past weekend, so did the tourists. At Capitol Reef national park, the trailhead parking lot was full of cars bearing plates from states such as California, Washington, Colorado and Georgia, all Covid-19 hotspots. The hikers were either oblivious to or ignoring the plea from the local sheriff’s office that outsiders stay away.
“While we would normally welcome visitors to enjoy the beauty of Wayne county, we really don’t want visitors during the Covid-19 pandemic,” stated a 3 April post on the sheriff’s Facebook page. Wayne county, where Capitol Reef is located, has 2,600 residents and little in the way of healthcare services. “If you don’t live here, please don’t come here.”
The crown jewels in the US national park system, like Grand Canyon and Zion, were shuttered last week after days of petitioning from local health authorities, but 284 of the 419 units in the national park system remain fully or partially open to visitors.
They are parks such as Capitol Reef, renowned for a colorful series of sandstone cliffs. Even after the main scenic drive was closed on Sunday to try to discourage visitors, the park itself remained open.
The National Park Service (NPS) “asks visitors to follow CDC guidance as well as state and local orders in order to protect themselves and others”, said Chelsea Sullivan, a public affairs specialist at NPS headquarters in Washington DC. Sullivan said there are no immediate plans for an agency-wide shut down. “Where it is possible to adhere to federal, state and local public health guidance, outdoor spaces will remain accessible to the public.”
But many NPS employees on the frontlines disagree with the agency’s approach. “It is irresponsible for us to be open because we are aiding in the spread of the virus,” said a manager at a national park in the midwest who has witnessed visitation increase over the past several weeks.
Last Friday, the park hosted visitors from as far away as New York and Florida, including a man who said he was visiting every national park after being laid off from his job. Even as governors from 42 states have issued stay-at-home orders, the park manager, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, pointed out that the National Park Service is encouraging vacation-type travel.
“Something bigger is going on, people are on the move,” said the manager. “More than half of our visitors are from outside the region and that is not typical for us.”
According to information provided to the Guardian, superintendents at numerous parks that are experiencing rises in visitation are seeking permission to close completely. However, getting approval from the Department of Interior to shut down requires that state and county health authorities petition the interior secretary and make the case that the park poses a public health threat.
In the absence of this approval, superintendents have implemented piecemeal facility closures to try to protect staff from exposure to coronavirus, such as shutting visitor centers and closing roads. But rangers, first responders and maintenance employees are still on the job and interacting with visitors.
“We are seeing increased visitation right now, especially on weekends,” said a ranger working at Minuteman national historical park in Concord, Massachusetts. The ranger noted that buildings in the 970-acre park were closed but the trails were open. “We are trying to be a refuge for people.” According to data from the New York Times, there were more than 2,600 coronavirus cases in Middlesex county, where the park is located.
For the millions of Americans who are feeling chained to their houses, getting outdoors is often the brightest part of the day. But national parks are designed to concentrate people on to developed trails to protect the environment, and this makes following current CDC guidelines for social distancing tough.
“I wish we could find refuge in national parks right now but in many cases the parks are too crowded to be safe,” said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents more than 1,800 current and retired NPS employees. “It’s just not possible to keep people far enough apart on the trails. If CDC guidelines aren’t being followed then the parks need to be closed.”
In addition to hazards posed to park staff and locals in communities where parks are located, the cross-country travel that national park visitation encourages poses its own threat. “People want to drive out to where it’s beautiful,” said Steve Howe, a canyoneering guide living near Capitol Reef, “but they are visiting all the services en route and transmitting disease from areas of high urban density to rural areas every time they stop for gas or at a convenience store. Even though there are no Covid-19 cases here right now, I expect there will be soon from the spillover effect of people passing through.”
Griffin’s, the only grocery store in the southern Utah town of Escalante, implemented restrictions beginning on Sunday that limit store entry to residents. Escalante is located on a popular scenic byway between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national park, which is also open.
Howe, who owns a small guiding company and has seen his business evaporate with the spread of Covid-19, was glad Capitol Reef closed its main road but is skeptical people will stay home.
“When America thinks of going out into nature, they think of going to parks,” he said. “I am not looking forward to the Easter weekend madness.”