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NJ State Parks Prep for Return of COVID-19 Crowds

by Kenneth Burns, WHYY

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. Link to story:

Parks are seeing a bit of a renaissance, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. State and county officials in New Jersey have all said parks have seen an increase in the number of visitors since the pandemic made it one of the few safe activities outside our homes. Even regulars are noticing the increase in foot traffic.

“Definitely a lot more people here than usual,” said Steve Anderson, of Bordentown. He regularly bikes at Crystal Lake Park in Burlington County and did cross-country skiing over the winter. “I would come here a couple of years ago and there wasn’t that many people—now there’s a lot more people.”

When Gov. Phil Murphy allowed for parks to reopen last year, it did not take long for people to take advantage. Eight state parks were “overrun” on the first day—including Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in Ocean County and the Bulls Island Recreation Area in Hunterdon County—leaving state officials to urge people to keep visits short and leave within two hours.

But even as the pandemic moves into a second year following a snowy winter, state officials are not expecting a repeat.

“We’re ready,” said Shawn LaTourette, acting commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks. No one was prepared for what happened last year, he said, but they have learned a lot about the new coronavirus in that time, including that it’s safer to go outdoors than it is to be inside among people.

“We know a lot more about what will keep people safe,” he said. “We’re implementing measures that will allow us to effectively provide the same level of service as we were able to do in a pre-pandemic setting.”

Park goers will be asked to “mask in and to mask out” when visiting—to make sure they have a mask with going into a park and that they take it with them when they leave. LaTourette added that there will also be reminders including at gatehouses and other entries to mask up and to maintain physical distance from others who aren’t in your party.

And there will be more state park workers this year to enforce the rules. The department typically hires between 700 and 900 seasonal employees to support the permanent, full-time state park staff. LaTourette said there was a “significant” decrease in applications last year. So far, the department has received more than 800 for the upcoming season.

“Generally, we trust the people of New Jersey to do the right thing, to protect themselves and each other,” he said.

The state is also asking for people who bring in anything from outside of the park, like a blanket, picnic basket or trash, to carry out with them. Some services like campsites and cabin rentals will be also phased in as the agency continues to ramp up the hiring of seasonal workers. Similar distancing and mask requests will be in place at local parks.

Camden and Mercer counties have also seen an increase in park traffic. Like their state counterparts, they are anticipating crowds to return.

“The parks exploded with activity,” said Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash who is a liaison to the county parks department. “We saw an increase in traffic and while we don’t have an exact count, we believe that the parks have never been busier in all the years that we’ve been working in the Camden County park system.”

“We knew [the pandemic] wasn’t going away completely no time soon,” said Aaron T. Watson, executive director of the Mercer County Parks Commission.

Late last summer, the county held a drive-in movie night on Fridays and a drive-in concert series on Saturdays. This year, in addition to some virtual summer camps and programming, there will be a variety of outdoor activities including kayaking, farm programming, nature walks, and equestrian lessons.

Burlington County is planning some drive-in movie and concert events for this summer, according to County Commissioner Linda Hynes. She adds that no large-scale events are scheduled this spring but there will be some limited number of in-person outdoor programs, including line dancing at the county fairgrounds, nature walks, and birdwatching trips.