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Tue Apr 14, 2020, 08:23 AM

Interior Didn't Just Leave National Parks Open As COVID Spread; On March 18th, It Waived Fees

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The Interior Department’s reluctance to close parks—especially those that draw large numbers of tourists—even as the pandemic is sweeping across the country is being criticized by current and former National Park Service staff who say that the inconsistent messaging and leadership’s failure to take decisive action is putting staffers, the public, and rural communities at risk. Today, more than 200 national park sites remain open. In contrast, Canada closed all of its national parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas on March 25.

"The DOI response has been dangerously uneven and contradictory,” a veteran Park Service employee in Nevada told Sierra magazine. “I would just describe it as chaos.” Even the NPS office of public health has urged stronger action. According to an April 3 memo obtained by Sierra, the office’s epidemiology branch chief has advised the Interior Department to restrict park access in communities where stay-at-home orders are in place and to discontinue dormitory-style housing for new employees and concessionaires. Failure to limit visitation to national parks, the memo warns, will increase the risk of negative outcomes for the federal workforce and the public.

“We can say with absolute certainty,” the memo states, “that leaving our parks open to the public when social distancing is not being practiced, onboarding employees originating from throughout the country and world, and permitting significant shared housing environments will result in a significantly greater burden of disease and death than if we had taken the proactive measure to continue to close these parks and/or limit operations.”

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In many ways, the Interior’s handling of the public health crisis has mirrored that of the Trump administration more broadly. The department initially seemed to downplay the risk; in a March 5 memo, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt suggested that the virus was not spreading widely and that most people in the US had “little immediate risk of exposure.” According to one Interior employee who works out of the Washington, DC, office, as late as March 13, when school districts across the country had begun to close, it seemed like “all systems normal” at the Interior. Then, on March 18, Bernhardt announced that the department would be waiving entry fees at all national parks to make it “a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors.”

At a moment when many people were craving open space, fresh air, sunlight, and perhaps an opportunity to get away from it all, the impulse was understandable. But it sent the wrong message: Already crowded parks saw a surge in visitors, sometimes overwhelming facilities and staff even as public health officials were encouraging Americans to practice social distancing or simply stay at home. Meanwhile, some parks were beginning to close—the Washington Monument shut down on March 14—but there seemed to be little coordination among NPS sites, and many of the busiest destinations remained open. Numerous parks across the country modified operations but didn’t close, leaving the public to navigate a rapidly evolving situation. At Joshua Tree in California, the park limited access to foot and bike traffic on March 21, but only updated its website that morning, which led to chaos and confusion at trailheads and parking lots.

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https://www.adventure-journal.com/2020/04/national-park-staff-memo-warns-of-disease-and-death-as-parks-stay-open/

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