The Great Outdoors Are Open Amid Outbreak – Sort Of

(CN) — With the era of extreme social distancing firmly taking root in the American public, many are repairing to the outdoors to break the monotony of being indoors.

However, the managers of the nation’s parks are still scrambling to form a protocol that ensures parks are not breeding grounds for coronavirus spread.

National parks throughout the nation have closed visitor centers, ceased running shuttles, cordoned off campgrounds, canceled guided tours, and shuttered restaurants and lodges. Consternation has also increased around high-use outdoor areas like Bishop, California, which plays host to some of the best rock-climbing venues in the world. Lines of rock-climbers, on vacation from school or work due to widespread closures, queued outside of the Happy Boulders, prompting some community members to fret about the impact of possibly infected urban dwellers on the rural community without equivalent medical infrastructure.

“I, personally, am livid seeing people use this as an opportunity to take a climbing vacation ‘away from it all,’” said Paula Flakser during an interview with a climbing magazine called Thundercling. “You are not away from it all. You are just going to a different type of community.”

There is particular concern surrounding climbing as the same routes are being climbed by multiple people, who are all using their hands to get to the top of the routes, possibly spreading germs.

Flakser and others acknowledge there is a balance. She is a bartender who was laid off from her job at Mammoth Mountain, one of California’s premier ski resorts. Many like Flakser rely on an influx of tourists to prop up local businesses, but want to see that influx abate in the coming weeks as the community of the spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 increases by the day.

The National Park Service has closed many of its facilities but also waived entrance fees Wednesday in the hopes of reducing bottlenecks in and out of the parks, while also encouraging people to get outside where social distancing is easier to accomplish.

For now, many parks like Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park remain open, but with dramatic curtailment of services and visitor center operations.

“It is the job of national park superintendents to ensure the safety of their park, their staff, their visitors and their community,” said Theresa Pierno, CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Superintendents must be supported as they make decisions to close visitor centers, buildings and areas within parks. In some cases, they will need to make the difficult decision to close entire parks.”

In Utah, health officials are asking the state to take dramatic action to curb the influx of visitors to national parks, worrying the hospital systems could be overwhelmed if the virus were to take hold in the visiting population.

Officials in Moab, Utah, disallowed the accommodation of all overnight tourists, including campers, in an effort to decrease the number of people in the area. Moab is a recreational destination itself, but also serves as a doorstep to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Officials say recreating outdoors alone can offer a respite from anxiety and monotony associated with the coronavirus lockdowns, but heading to crowded and popular outdoor sports can also exacerbate the public health emergency.

Zion National Park in the southwestern corner of Utah has closed its shuttle service but the park remains open. It’s a similar story for the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

California closed all its state park campgrounds Wednesday, but hiking trails and beaches remain open to the public. California State Parks already halted tours at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and closed the visitor center in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Natural Reserve.

Despite the closures of physical infrastructure citizens can still access the outdoors throughout the country.

But it all could be temporary. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing daily guidance that changes frequently so conditions on the ground could alter.

In Italy and Spain, where the world’s most serious outbreaks show little sign of abating, biking and other forms of recreation are completely banned as the citizens are on an almost total lockdown.

Whether the United States evolves toward those stringent measures will depend on a large degree of whether the current “shelter in place” measures are successful at quelling the outbreak.

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