US national park reopenings raise fears of coronavirus outbreaks

On Wednesday, Zion national park in Utah, one of the most popular natural attractions in the US, received its first visitors in more than a month as the Trump administration continued its push to reopen the nation’s outdoors as well as it cities and businesses.

More than 4,000 people poured into the beauty spot from numerous states.

Yet the phased reopening of America’s national parks has raised concerns about exacerbating the spread of Covid-19 and endangering the residents of rural towns located near parks.

“We don’t want the parks to become super spreaders,” said Timothy Whitehouse, executive director of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “These communities simply do not have the capacity or the medical infrastructure to deal with an outbreak.”

In March and April, as the pandemic raged, parks remained open. During that time, NPS employees complained of large crowds gathering at parks as visitors ignored social distancing rules. Many parks shuttered on an ad hoc basis.

National parks such as the Everglades, Smoky Mountains and Glen Canyon have already reopened, though in most cases visitors’ centers and campgrounds are still out of commission. The popular Canyonlands and Arches national parks in Utah, as well as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming, will also partially open this month.

In Springdale, a town of 660 located next to Zion national park, there is a delicate attempt to balance economic and health interests. In late March, Mayor Stan Smith drafted a letter asking the interior department to close Zion to visitors in order to protect the town. As was the case across the country, pressure from local stakeholders, not guidance from the federal government, was the impetus for the closure.

Facing the prospect of reopening, “the retired community is concerned about an influx of tourists bringing in the virus into town, while the business community says this is the time when we should be making money”, Smith told the Guardian. His $6.5m municipal budget is almost entirely dependent on tourism.

“Some say it’s too soon, especially those residents that are very concerned about our vulnerable populations,” said Mayor Emily Niehaus of Moab, Utah. Her town is located near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. “Others are saying not soon enough. But we need a target date.” Niehaus has expressed support for the safe reopening of the parks – meaning, for instance, that visitors will have to follow physical distancing guidelines – at the end of May.

“The gateway communities have to understand the numbers [of coronavirus infections] are going to go up,” the Yellowstone park superintendent, Cameron Sholly, told the Billings Gazette, acknowledging the potential spread of Covid-19 in communities adjacent to parks.

There has been no word on whether parks have enough protective equipment, and they are not looking into strategies such as timed entry, said Kristen Brengel, a senior vice-president at the National Parks Conservation Association. “At parks like Zion, where you already had a lot of overcrowding, this could occur quite quickly.”

In an email, the park service said it is “working service-wide with federal, state, and local public health authorities to closely monitor the Covid-19 pandemic and using a phased approach to increase access on a park-by-park basis”.

Alan Morgan, chief executive officer at the National Rural Health Association, had a bracing prognosis for the communities located near national parks.

“The story of Covid-19 now shifts to rural America.”

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