Even on a blustery day with winds gusting to more than 20 miles per hour, parks all around Richmond saw brisk traffic Friday as residents eager to escape the confines of their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic looked to nature for relief.

To some, keeping parks open is a public necessity, providing a place to go when almost everywhere else is closed. But to others, it’s a misguided move that has led to crowded trails and throngs of people that directly contravene government orders for all Americans to socially distance and risk further spreading the new strain of coronavirus.

“Prior to the stay-at-home order from the governor, we were seeing increased visitation at many of our parks,” said Dave Neudeck, the public communications and marketing director for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees state parks as well as natural preserves and other areas. 

After the order, “I think it leveled off,” he said. Still, however, “it’s definitely still similar to a summer visitation day.”

A patchwork of parks, a patchwork of policies

Across the nation, states have taken a range of approaches to the “parks problem” — the dilemma over whether keeping public spaces open is safe or encourages behavior that could further spread the disease that has killed more than 18,000 people in the U.S. since the first diagnosed American case in February. 

Some, like New Jersey, have closed state parks entirely. Others, like Michigan, have closed only certain park facilities, like shelters and campgrounds, but left the parks themselves open. Still others have issued no direction at all, leaving the status quo intact.

Virginia has so far adopted the middle path: beaches and park facilities are closed, but parks remain open — at least for the time being. On April 3, dismayed by reports from DCR and Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials that people were continuing to congregate in parks, Gov. Ralph Northam warned the situation could change. 

“Do not gather in groups. We will be watching this weekend,” the governor said. “I do not want to have to close these lands to public visitation because of a few irresponsible people.”

The threat was never carried out. On Monday, Northam noted that “this weekend we did not see the crowds at our beaches and our state parks that we saw a week ago” and thanked Virginians without taking further action.

Without a statewide directive, the burden of decision-making has fallen to state agencies and localities, which have authority over their own parks. 

Byrd Park shelter
Plastic fencing in Richmond’s Byrd Park blocks visitors from using facilities in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

On the state level, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has the authority to close individual parks and preserves if it determines there’s a threat to safety or well-being, said Neudeck, but for more broad-scale closures, “the decision to do anything at that level would come from the governor.” 

As of April 10, DCR had ordered closed two natural area preserves — The Channels and Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia — citing above-capacity visitation rates and terrain that made it impossible for social distancing to be followed, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation had closed the Bull Run Mountain Natural Area Preserve near Manassas. 

Elsewhere, said Neudeck, “the public access areas do lend themselves to the social distancing as long as the public attendance is kept to what we have parking for.”

National parks, local impact

For many local governments, the parks problem has centered on the federal government’s policy of closing national parks on a case-by-case basis, an approach that has been criticized for encouraging the movement of large numbers of city-dwellers to rural areas that often lack medical and other resources. 

Most hotly debated was Shenandoah National Park, which has been inundated with out-of-town and out-of-state visitors since COVID-19-related restrictions were first put in place. The park was closed Wednesday at the request of Virginia’s Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, an area that includes Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties.

An email from the National Park Service Office of Public Affairs attributed the decision to Shenandoah Superintendent Jennifer Flynn, “with the support of” NPS Deputy Director of Operations David Vela and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

In a letter to Flynn, RRHD Director Wade Kartchner said keeping the park open during the pandemic would be “detrimental to the public health” and recommended that it be closed indefinitely.

“I am particularly concerned about visitors to the park who are coming from areas of widespread community transmission, increasing the risk to park staff and the local community,” he wrote. “Many visitors to the park are from out of state, including from areas of high levels of infection. Many visitors are not following current partial closure restrictions and a full closure has the potential to encourage more visitors to stay away altogether.”

Surrounding counties had already expressed dismay at the influx. The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors sent two letters to Flynn pleading that the park be closed “in order to help our small, rural community protect itself from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19,” as the March 31 correspondence read.

“The governor’s mixed message, which calls for people to stay at home on the one hand and encouraging outdoor exercise on the other, might lead people to believe a visit to Shenandoah National Park is still acceptable,” Board Chair Christine Smith wrote. “The governor has already closed beaches within the commonwealth; we believe Shenandoah National Park is no different and should also be closed.”

But in Albemarle County, which is also home to several park trailheads, some local officials worried that closing Shenandoah absent a comprehensive shutdown of national parks would just shift the problem to other counties.

“If we close that park, does everyone just move over to the George Washington National Forest?” asked Supervisor Liz Palmer during a live-streamed board meeting.

Her colleague Diantha McKeel compared the dilemma to a game of “whack-a-mole”: “You try to stop it here, and the problem moves somewhere else.”

Widespread closure is the only solution, many national parks advocates say.

“The entire system of the national park is designed for people to stay in the same place,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “What we’ve seen over the last three weeks is that it’s just because of the way parks are set up that it’s very, very difficult to keep people from gathering in groups larger than 10.”

Not only does that endanger the surrounding communities, she said, but it puts the rangers who must staff the parks at risk. 

The public is “a little naive” about the staffing national parks require, said Jim Northup, former Shenandoah superintendent and a member of the executive council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which earlier this week penned an op-ed calling on Bernhardt to close Shenandoah and criticizing Northam for not taking steps to do so.

“When people come to visit parks, a certain percentage of visitors have some sort of problem,” ranging from injuries to locking keys in the car, said Northup. “Putting Park Service employees in the position of having to respond to these incidents, no matter how simple,” he added, was “irresponsible.”

“We’re concerned that the Interior Department is waiting for locals to acknowledge these problems and aren’t making these decisions based on their own expertise,” said Brengel. “As far as we’re concerned, the Shenandoah closure is too late. They should have done it weeks ago.”