How COVID-19 Is Affecting the United States’ National Parks

Some sites have closed completely, while others are making modifications to promote social distancing

In lieu of visiting Yellowstone (pictured here) and other national parks in person, try exploring them virtually. Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images

Amid global efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 transmission, hunkering down at home, away from friends, work colleagues and enclosed public spaces, has become the new normal. But in many places, going outside for some fresh air is still allowed. In fact, experts encourage it—so long as it’s under the right circumstances.

“My personal feeling is that if people are practicing sound respiratory hygiene, sound hand hygiene, they’re distancing themselves physically from others outside, and you're exercising and walking in the park—I think that’s actually a good public health practice,” Albert Ko, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, tells Laurel Wamsley and Maria Godoy of NPR.

Last week, the Trump administration waived entrance fees to the country’s national parks, hoping to make it easier for Americans to enjoy the outdoors during this difficult time. But the move proved controversial. In a March 19 statement, Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which consists of current and former park employees, said, “We should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks. It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe.”

Francis’ remarks arrived close on the heels of an earlier coalition statement calling on the National Park Service to “close all facilities that require employees and/or members of the public to be in close proximity and in confined spaces.”

Reports of congested conditions at various parks have circulated on social media in recent days. According to the Guardian’s Annette McGivney, a park employee reported on Facebook that hundreds of people had streamed into a visitor center at Big Bend National Park in Texas last Monday. A worker at Utah’s Zion National Park, meanwhile, shared a photo of crowds waiting to board shuttle buses.

Google Arts and Culture National Parks
The Google Arts and Culture National Park Service portal offers virtual tours of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Carlsbad Caverns, among others. Google Arts and Culture

But as these concerns started surfacing, the National Park Service announced that it would begin making changes to attractions where it was impossible to adhere to official guidance on social distancing. Some historic sites and outdoor spaces have shut down completely, among them major attractions like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; Yosemite National Park; the Washington Monument in D.C.; and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is the most popular National Park Service site. A complete list of shutdowns can be found here.

Other sites are staying open but modifying their operations. Zion National Park has suspended the shuttle bus service that was a source of concern last week, for instance. The park also shut down its lodge operations, ranger programs and visitor contact stations, among other facilities. Visitor centers, overnight camping and museums are closed at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Joshua Tree National Park similarly closed its visitors centers, roads and campgrounds—though that did not prevent large crowds from gathering at the park over the weekend, according to Christopher Damien of the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

If these modifications—or concerns about staying away from potential crowds—are keeping you from visiting a national park, you can always opt to make a remote visit. The National Parks Service offers virtual tours of several key sites, including Yellowstone National Park and the Statue of Liberty. Over at Google Arts and Culture, you can take ranger-narrated tours of multiple parks, and learn more about the sites through objects in their collections. (Check out the fake heads made by Alcatraz prisoners to conceal their escape, for example.) The experience may not beat getting out into the great outdoors, but enjoying the parks from afar will help keep everyone safe.

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