National Parks Are Staying Open During the Pandemic. Is That Safe? (Update: Some Just Closed)

A view of the mountains at Smuggler's Cove.
Smuggler’s Cove in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Update, March 21, 2020: Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks shut down on Friday evening and stopped admitting visitors. For updates on park closures and alerts, go here.

Original article: Since Americans can’t only shelter indoors during the coronavirus outbreak, the National Park Service has been waiving entrance fees and encouraging visitors to venture out to its sites. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said on Wednesday.

Yet some current and former National Park Service employees are unsettled by the decision not to close sites, especially since so many other public spaces are shutting down to prevent people from coming in contact with one another. “National parks welcome visitors from around the world. Many National Park Service (NPS) employees interact with members of the public daily,” reads an open letter from Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which consists of current and former NPS employees. “To suggest to the public that gathering at national park sites is acceptable when gathering at restaurants, theaters, libraries, and other public spaces is no longer safe is irresponsible to the visiting public and employees.” The coalition is calling for a closure of any areas that require employees or members of the public to be in close proximity, and for the NPS to generally stop encouraging people to visit sites.

The National Park Service has shut down certain facilities at sites across the country, such as visitor centers and lodges, but is keeping trails, roads, and public lands open. Certain parks are going further in response to an influx of visitors, which threatens to overwhelm local towns and their health systems. The Southeast Utah Health Department issued an order on Tuesday requesting visitors who don’t have official business to return home from Moab, the city near the Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Cars have been clogging roads in Arches and Zion Canyon, a national park on the other side of the state, in recent days. Hundreds of people also visited Big Bend National Park in Texas on Monday, and Slate’s Jane C. Hu reported that Joshua Tree was packed over the weekend. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky only closed its namesake cave on Wednesday, as it requires people to squeeze together in tight spaces.

A long line of cars waits to get in to Arches National Park.
A view of the Arches National Park entrance taken from the entrance station webcam. Dustin Stone

One NPS employer was so frustrated by the agency’s decision that he resigned on Wednesday. Dustin Stone, who worked in human resources at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska, told Slate, “My real beef is when the government shutdown occurred, parks were shuttered overnight. But we have a global pandemic occurring right now and the park is dragging its feet on sending employees home with sweeping administrative leave.” While public buildings at Klondike have been closed, the public lands are open and employees are still expected to come into work.

Stone notes that Skagway is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, because it has a population of just about 1,000 people and few resources to handle a crisis. “Whenever the flu comes through this town, it takes out half the workforce over the course of a few days,” he said. Skagway residents live in close proximity with one another and only have access to one larger grocery store and a smaller independent one. The town has only one ventilator and no doctors; nurse practitioners at the local clinic usually provide medical care. The only way to leave the town is by plane, boat, or crossing the Canadian border, which will be closing to nonessential traffic. While there haven’t been many tourists visiting Klondike—as it’s usually cruise ships that bring them—Stone says that summer workers keep streaming in for jobs in Skagway, making it even more important for NPS employees and other people to practice social distancing and stay home. He mentioned telework would be preferable, though not everyone has an internet connection in the area and the proper equipment to access secure government networks.

Stone provided Slate with the memo that Klondike superintendent Jason Taylor sent to employees, which includes a response to their concerns about having to still come in to the office while the park is open:

A question has recently been posed by park staff asking ‘why don’t we close the park fully, and ask everyone to telework, or simply stay home.’ That time may come, but we are not there yet for two reasons. First, neither CDC, or state, nor local guidance has stated that we should shelter in place, staying home. So, I don’t believe we have the authority or defensible argument to do so. And, very importantly, the leadership team has discussed the matter a number of times; we believe that we can effectively meet social distancing requirements within office spaces we have at the park. At admin/HQ, our staff density is very low, now, and we have many vacant offices…allowing park staff to social distance at work and still have access to park resources (equipment, networks, internet, etc.). The maintenance team has canceled morning meetings, altered work schedules, has increased shared space cleaning, and is practicing social distancing during outdoor efforts. Additionally, we talked with NPS public health officials today who supported our workplace social distancing plan, assuming we are also cleaning shared/common spaces. This is something we will improve for admin/HQ effective immediately.

Neither the National Park Service nor Taylor responded to Slate’s requests for comment.

As long as people keep some distance from one another, public spaces where people can take a walk or exercise are a necessity of social distancing. As my colleague Shannon Palus wrote this week, “not being cooped up in your home is going to be crucial to getting through this.”

But those public spaces need to be maintained by someone. Public employees are essential to keeping some of these places open, and that means, even with strong measures in place, they’re taking on risks so that the rest of us can take a break from our living rooms. Thank, from a healthy distance, any ranger you see out there—or, to ensure our national parks aren’t bearing the full force of everyone’s pent-up leg-stretching, just go for a walk near your home.