Coronavirus: US national parks remain open amid outbreak causing health concerns for staff

The National Park Service (NPS) said on Tuesday said that “outdoor spaces will remain open to the public” but that they were heeding CDC advice on social distancing

Louise Boyle
New York
Wednesday 18 March 2020 19:12 GMT
Yosemite National Park covers more than 1,000 square miles, with 95 per cent of its land designated wilderness
Yosemite National Park covers more than 1,000 square miles, with 95 per cent of its land designated wilderness (Getty Images)

Many of America’s national parks will remain open amid the coronavirus outbreak despite calls for closure from public health officials and former employees.

The National Park Service (NPS) said on Tuesday said that “outdoor spaces will remain open to the public” but that they were heeding CDC advice on social distancing.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said: “The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is the priority of the National Park Service.

"Park superintendents are empowered to modify their operations, including closing facilities and cancelling programs, to address the spread of the coronavirus.”

Some highly trafficked and smaller sites – the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island in New York, the Washington Monument in DC and Alcatraz Island off San Francisco – have been closed.

The vast expanses on offer at national parks may seem perfect for social distancing along with being among the last places to go now that many non-essential venues have shuttered. However, it is unclear what keeping parks open means for employees, in particular the hundreds of maintenance and public safety workers operating at ground level.

Many employees not only work in the parks but also live there and as cases of coronavirus continue to rise, public health workers and interest groups have questioned the wisdom of keeping the parks open at all.

One employee, who cleans public restrooms, wrote on social media: “It’s not a matter of if I get sick but when,” according to the Guardian.

Scott Taylor, of ABC 7, tweeted on Tuesday that a National Park Police officer was experiencing symptoms and was being tested for COVID-19 after being in contact with a Metro Transit Police Officer who was confirmed to have the virus. Nine National Park police employees were placed in quarantine as a result.

On Monday, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents retirees from the park service, said that facilities which bring staff and visitors in close proximity should be closed.

NPS did not respond to an email from the Independent to clarify which employees are continuing to work through the COVID-19 outbreak and what is being done to protect them.

It was left to individual parks to make decisions and many have kept employees in place. The NPS has more than 20,000 employees working across 419 areas, totalling 85 million acres.

California’s Yosemite National Park account tweeted on Tuesday that although visitor centers, museums, hotels, restaurants, and shuttles are closed, the park is open. "We have rangers and other employees working in the field," read one tweet.

Biscayne National Park in Florida remained open but closed the visitor center until further notice. Great Basin National Park in Nevada has closed the visitor center and tours but kept on park rangers, according to 8 News.

In the small city of Moab, Utah, which sits close to the Arches and Canyonlands national parks, the local hospital pleaded with tourists to stay away amid fears that the facility, which has only 17 beds, could become overwhelmed with coronavirus cases.

In a letter to Utah Governor Gary Herbert, doctors from the Moab Regional Hospital implored him to shut down non-essential businesses and "if within your realm of influence, the National Parks".

"Although the desert around Moab is vast, the town itself is small… cruise ship small… with similar isolation and limitations in resources. We are already concerned about how we will meet the needs of our own community in an epidemic," the letter reads.

As of today, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are open but some facilities have closed.

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