US national parks cause public health concern as visitors flood in

Even as Broadway shows were shuttered and Disneyland was closed due to the Covid-19, most US national parks were open for business on Tuesday, confounding public health officials and worrying park staff who did not want to be exposed to the virus.

National parks have become a haven over the past week as the public seeks places to go during spring break. One park employee reported on Facebook that a visitor center at Big Bend national park was full on Monday with hundreds of people. Another shared a photo of shoulder to shoulder crowds at Zion national park waiting to board shuttle buses. (The park closed its shuttle bus system later in the day.)

The only units in the system that have closed in response to Covid-19 are Golden Gate national recreation area, the National Mall and the Statue of Liberty.

National park staff who were interviewed for this story but requested anonymity for fear of retribution reported that superintendents in charge of at least two parks had requested permission from the Department of the Interior to close their units but so far no approvals have been granted. The Department of Interior did not respond to a request for comment on its park closure policy.

“Our focus is on ensuring park employees are safe,” said Grand Canyon national park public information officer Lily Daniels.

Grand Canyon tourists milled around inside the park visitor center yesterday, rode shuttle buses and ate at restaurants.

Daniels said that social distancing measures taken by the park include limiting shuttles to passengers who can find a seat, paying entrance fees at kiosks rather than at counters, and closing the theater inside the visitor center. “We are working in close consultation with the Centers for Disease Control,” she said.

Asked about the CDC guidelines on preventing large gatherings of people, Daniels said she was not sure how many people were in the Grand Canyon visitor center yesterday. Grand Canyon is one of the most popular parks in the system with nearly 6 million visitors a year.

Many national parks offer wide open spaces that are ideal for social distancing and are not inherently risky environments during the coronavirus pandemic. However, park infrastructure such as restrooms and trash cans require regular upkeep from staff in order to prevent the kind of rapid deterioration that occurred during the 2018-2019 government shutdown.

Park employees from units across the country vented on social media about fears for themselves and their community. Many staff live in dorm-like quarters.

One low-level park employee who cleans public restrooms wrote: “It’s not a matter of if I get sick but when.” While park employees in management positions are allowed to work from home, many minimum wage-level workers are forced to come in contact with visitors from all over the world in order to earn their paycheck.

“Politicians never go to the frontlines themselves but they often decide to put others in harm’s way,” said Tom Myers, who has worked as a physician at Grand Canyon national park’s clinic for 30 years. “In this case it’s the park’s working poor, all in the name of maintaining the economy. It’s shameful.”

The fact that southern Utah’s national parks and other popular federal lands are still open prompted the Southeast Utah health department to declare a “local public health emergency” on Sunday in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus to a remote area where no cases had been reported to date.

“We are concerned people will come and get sick,” the mayor of Moab, Emily Niehaus, told the Salt Lake Tribune. While Moab is internationally famous for its proximity to iconic national parks like Arches and Canyonlands, its hospital only has 17 beds. “Being a rural community, we don’t have the capacity to deal with a pandemic,” Niehaus added.

It may be private concessions operators that finally push the Department of Interior to close parks as coronavirus spreads. On Monday, Eastern National, which runs retail stores in 170 national parks, announced it would no longer provide staffing at those facilities. “Our store staff are unable to maintain the social distancing that the CDC recommends in our store while serving visitors,” wrote Eastern National’s CEO, Kevin Kissling, in a memo sent to national park managers.

In the Grand Canyon, private outfitters are also taking matters into their own hands.

“We proactively canceled all our trips,” said Dave Logan, owner of Flagstaff, Arizona-based Four Season Guides. “We decided to do it not only for the health of our guests but also for the health of our guides. We don’t want them getting sick and then spreading the virus around in our community.”

The decision is a big financial hit for Logan who depends on the popular spring break hiking season for a large chunk of his revenue. “We refunded every penny,” he said. “My company has a sense of personal responsibility in dealing with this crisis. I think everybody should.”

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