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Washington, DC, June 1, 2020 — Under orders from President Trump to reopen, many national parks are exposing visitors to COVID-19 by ignoring public health safeguards, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The National Park Service (NPS) tolerance for dense crowds contrasts with rules for maintaining minimum distances being enforced in state parks and beaches, and those proposed for reopening Disney World in July.

Disney World in Orlando, Florida has just announced measures that include a timed reservation system to thin out crowds, minimum distance requirements, temperature checks, and mandatory face coverings. These are steps that NPS is not implementing as it reopens more than 150 shuttered national parks. Epitomizing his agency’s posture is Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly, who is quoted in news articles recently saying –

  • “The NPS is not going to be the social distancing police.”
  • “Yellowstone will not be actively telling citizens to spread out and put masks on, especially outdoors”
  • “We don’t have control over massive groups of people at Grand Canyon or Old Faithful.”

“If state and local governments, and even Disney World, can enforce social distancing and mask requirements in parks, on beaches, and in other public places, it is not clear why the National Park Service is unable to do so,” stated PEER Pacific Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to strict Yellowstone rules, enforced by fines and/or jail time, that visitors must “remain at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) from all other wildlife.” “Yellowstone already requires a minimum distance for wildlife, yet in the midst of a pandemic, proximity to wildlife is not the only danger to visitors.”

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The NPS open-door policy also flies in the face of warnings from its own health staff issued before park closures this spring. Throngs of visitors pouring into gateway communities will increase infection risks not only for park staff, but for local residents. As Sholly concedes, “The gateway communities have to understand the numbers (of coronavirus infections) are going to go up.” However, he contended that this risk could be controlled:

“We have implemented a reopening plan that is limited in nature. It gives us time to observe and make adjustments, expand operations if conditions are favorable, and contract them if they are not.”

“By the time the Park Service realizes it is creating hot spots, it will be too late,” added Ruch, noting that NPS has no means to monitor infection rates in neighboring communities, many of which have no hospitals, and does not track visitors who may bring the virus back to their home states. “The Park Service claim that it can limit risks through adaptive management is the sort of fantasy we would expect to see celebrated in a Disney theme park, not by a federal agency.”

See Disney World’s new restrictions

Look at the Park Service’s embrace of overcrowding

Compare Yellowstone Rules for Wildlife