In recent weeks, between coronavirus concerns and home quarantines, record numbers have been turning to parks for relief — in some cases, causing so much congestion, parks have been forced to close due to overcrowding.
Last Sunday, Hamilton County Parks and Recreation director Tom Lamb shared a photo on Instagram, showing a number of vehicles parked in grassy, nondesignated areas throughout Enterprise South Nature Park after the parking lot had reached capacity.
"Your local parks are still open," Lamb wrote. "We need them and I will continue to advocate for open public spaces, but we need to do better than this."
For the time being, both Tennessee State Parks and Hamilton County Parks are keeping most of their outdoor spaces open to the public, but closing a number of park playgrounds, visitor centers and offices. On Monday, a statement released by the Parks and Recreation Department urged users to act responsibly with regard to social distancing and park capacity. The following day, it temporarily closed Enterprise South Nature Park to the public, due to rainfall and concern that the wet trails could be damaged by the increasing number of visitors to the property.
"All of our parks experienced increased visitation last week," Lamb said. "One ranger told me over the phone, 'It looks like more than we get on a normal spring break, but this ain't normal.'"
Enterprise South, said Lamb, is the most impacted by overuse due to limited parking, which has the capacity for just 356 vehicles. He estimated that more than 1,000 people visited Enterprise South the previous Saturday. Amid the high turnout, park rangers tried to remind visitors to maintain safe distances from others, said Lamb, but "were surprised by the turnout and several people's disregard for distancing."
To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department urges park users to follow certain guidelines.
' Refrain from using parks or trails if you are exhibiting symptoms.
' Follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on personal hygiene before and during use of parks or trails.
' Make other users aware of your presence, and maintain proper distance at all times.
' If social distancing is not possible, find an alternative location or time to visit the park.
That disregard has been seen elsewhere, too. On March 20, Chattanooga's Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center reversed an earlier decision to remain open after seeing visitors gravitate toward the playground, treehouse and other physical structures rather than walking its expansive grounds.
And it's not just local parks facing these crises.
On Tuesday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced that all park areas will be closed through at least April 6 due to overcrowding. According to the National Parks Service, over the past week, approximately 30,000 entered the park daily — an increase of about 5,000 visitors per day compared to last March.
Similarly, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is asking hikers to stay off the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, stretching from Georgia to Maine. Trailhead parking lots are exceeding capacities, and the AT has become the "opposite of social distancing," the conservancy president and CEO wrote in a statement.
"If a portion of the public does not follow guidelines [to prevent the spread of COVID-19], at what point does a government agency take action to protect them all?" Lamb said.
Hamilton County Park Policy
As of today, Hamilton County's Chester Frost Park and Tennessee Riverpark remain open to the public. However, all park playgrounds, visitor centers, athletic facilities and offices are closed to the public, and the parks will not be taking any new facility or campground reservations.
Enterprise South Nature Park reopened on Saturday, March 28.
While public health is the top concern, Lamb reminds us that overuse of open spaces takes a toll on the environment, as well.
"If trails and open spaces become our last refuge, it will be critically important to minimize user impacts while sustained maintenance is unavailable," he said.
Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of outdoor advocacy groups, shares five tips on how to get outside during a pandemic.
1. Make the health of others your number one priority. Coronavirus can be life-threatening for some. Conduct yourself in every respect with that in mind.
2. Don't go outside if you're sick or have been in contact with those who are. Keep a safe distance from others, and that includes in the car.
3. Stay close to home. Far away places (even ones just an hour down the road) increase the potential to spread illness.
4. Keep it chill. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed and it is not a good time to get hurt.
5. If parks are closed, don't go. If parks are open, be especially mindful of not overburdening areas that might have limited maintenance. Pack out your trash and use the restroom before you leave the house.
State Park Policy
All 56 Tennessee State Parks are transitioning to daytime schedules, opening 7 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. The new schedule will be in place until at least April 10. During this period, all public gathering spaces at state parks (such as visitor centers, golf courses, restaurants, shelters, playgrounds, etc.) are closed.
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