CORONAVIRUS

Appeals Grow To Close National Parks During Pandemic

Mar 27, 2020, 11:10 AM
(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)...
(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is sticking with its crowd-friendly waiver of entrance fees at national parks during the coronavirus pandemic, as managers at some parks try and fail to keep visitors a safe distance apart and communities appeal for a shutdown at other parks that are still open.

While the Interior Department agreed this week to requests from local managers of Yellowstone and some other iconic national parks to close, others remained open and newly free of charge. In Arizona, local governments and the Navajo Nation were waiting for an answer Thursday on their request earlier this week for federal officials to shut down Grand Canyon National Park as cases of the coronavirus grow in surrounding areas.

“We think it’s just in the best interest of the community, the visitors and the staff,” said Lena Fowler, a supervisor in Coconino County, which includes the Grand Canyon. “What we’re really concerned about is making sure everyone is safe.”

Park officials announced Thursday evening that three of the canyon’s most popular trails — Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab — were being temporarily closed as of noon Friday, with some other operations being modified.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that advocates on park policy issues, called the administration’s decision to keep the Grand Canyon open “beyond reckless.”

The Trump administration has issued guidelines to Americans urging them to stay at home whenever necessary, skip discretionary travel and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. But critics see the move to keep the parks open as a mixed message with potentially dangerous consequences for virus spread. As jobless rates explode and the death toll surges in the country, the Republican president also is increasingly pushing to convey a rapid return to normalcy.

The National Park Service is deciding whether to shut down individual sites on a park-by-park basis, in consultation with state and local health officials, Nicholas Goodwin, a spokesman for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, said Thursday.

Goodwin said a decision by Bernhardt earlier this month to waive entrance fees during the pandemic was meant to give a financial break to those visitors who had decided they wanted to go, not to draw people outdoors and together on vistas and trails as coranavirus deaths and illnesses grow.

“It was not meant to create a flood of people to national parks,” Goodwin said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of those whose request to close was granted by the Interior Department earlier this week.

There, the number of visitors last week surged over the previous year’s figures despite infection risks, with about 30,000 people entering the park each day.

Despite efforts at Smoky Mountains park to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19, including closing restrooms and visitor centers, the park found it impossible to keep people from crowding together in popular spots, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.

The day after the closure announcement, park officials learned that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We looked at different models, including closing just the highly congested trails, but in the end, we decided to support the local community efforts to decrease unnecessary travel,” she said.

In the Southwest, local health officials for Arches and Canyonlands national parks also urged the park service Thursday to shut down those sites.

Despite orders barring out-of-town residents from staying overnight, hundreds of visitors are still coming to the parks, said Bradon Bradford with the Southeast Utah Health Department. That puts park staff at risk of infection, especially when shortages have left them unable to get items they need to keep the restrooms sanitized, he said.

The small, rural hospital could still be overwhelmed if people get seriously ill, officials said.

Across the United States, deaths from COVID-19 topped 1,200 on Thursday, and there were more than 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for canceling “all U.S. events of 10+ people” when there is a “minimal or moderate spread of COVID-19 in the community.”

Although Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC would be releasing new guidance on national parks and the virus on Thursday, there was no such release, CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed confirmed Thursday evening.

Criticism of the Interior Department’s delayed response grew Thursday.

“I just don’t understand what’s going on in terms of the senior leadership,” regarding cutting the entrance fees and keeping national parks open, said Kristen Brengel, a senior official with the National Parks Conservation Association.

National parks, including the Grand Canyon, have roads and trails designed to funnel visitors en masse to see views and wildlife, Brengel said. “They know they can’t keep people safe there,” she said.

National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said Thursday that the agency is working with Grand Canyon staff to review documentation the park sent in support of the request to close.

In an email to Grand Canyon staff this week, the park said it included information on the limitations of its public health system, wastewater treatment and emergency responders.

The park gets more than 6 million visitors a year, but it’s also home year-round to about 2,000 people, including a small community of Havasupai tribal members. The spread of the coronavirus quickly could overwhelm a small clinic at the national park.

The Navajo Nation, which has 71 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, closed tribal parks, placed restrictions on businesses and issued a stay-at-home order for residents on the vast 27,000-square-mile (70,000-square-kilometer) reservation that extends into Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

“We are experiencing constant traffic through Navajo communities, and we simply cannot afford any additional outbreaks among our Navajo people, non-Navajo residents or those tourists travelling through the Navajo Nation,” tribal President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrote in the letter seeking the park closure.

___

Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz., and Loller from Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Coronavirus

RSV and flu...
Deidre McPhillips, CNN

Flu season intensifies, holiday gatherings could make it worse

Americans gathered for Thanksgiving last week amid a flu season that's worse than any has been in more than a decade, and experts continue to urge caution as multiple respiratory viruses circulate at high levels nationwide.
3 days ago
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov....
Jessie Yeung and CNN's Beijing bureau

Rare protests are spreading across China. Here’s what you need to know

From Shanghai to Beijing, protests have erupted across China in a rare show of dissent against the ruling Communist Party.
3 days ago
Police officers block Shanghai's Urumqi Road on Sunday. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)...
CNN's Beijing bureau and Nectar Gan

Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy

Protests erupted across China throughout the weekend, including at universities and in Shanghai where hundreds chanted "Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!"
4 days ago
Salt Lake City Police at the University of Utah Hospital due to a possible bomb threat. (Salt Lake ...
Michael Houck

Police: Unattended bag led to bomb squad response at U of U Hospital

Salt Lake City Police responded to a possible bomb threat at the University of Utah hospital Tuesday afternoon.
16 days ago
Evusheld...
Elizabeth Cohen and Naomi Thomas, CNN

COVID-19 medicine for immunocompromised patients is losing effectiveness

Judy Salins considers herself a smart, empowered patient, but until this week, she had no idea that the medicine she takes to defend herself against Covid-19 isn't protecting her as well as it used to.
20 days ago
Paxlovid, the antiviral pill that reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, also...
Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Paxlovid reduces risk of long Covid, Veterans Affairs study finds

Paxlovid, the antiviral pill that reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, also reduces the risk of long Covid, according to a new study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Appeals Grow To Close National Parks During Pandemic