Outdoor activities give reprieve from COVID-19 blues
With the Fourth of July less than a week away, there is an extra emphasis on outdoor activities in the age of COVID-19 due to the open air as well as the ability to easily social distance. As such, a number of state parks have already opened while others plan to do so later this week, just in time for the holiday.
Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority in West Virginia, said of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails last week that he understands the appeal when it comes to why families may seek out recreational getaways over the next couple months.
“This is a very good social-distancing type of vacation,” Lusk said. “It’s just you and your family on your ATV or UTV out there in the woods.”
In Williamsport, residents have been getting out for a summer lunch program for the community’s children.
Kayla Drummond, recreation coordinator for Williamsport, said that because of social distancing guidelines and other restrictions, they weren’t able to open the typical summer day camps this year or the pool. Even so, the lunch program serves as a means to ensure children are offered a mid-day meal and they are able to get outside for a few hours each day.
“For them, a couple hours can make a big difference,” Drummond said. “Now we even have grandparents out here with the kids and moms and dads too.”
The skate park, playgrounds and pavilions are open to the public, she said, and people have been using the parks to get exercise. She said about 80 percent of people in the parks are not wearing masks.
“The parks are being used regularly and people seem very comfortable using them,” she said.
In Strasburg, Virginia, a walking path along the Shenandoah River has seen a lot of traffic, according to Michelle Bixler, director of community development.
“People tell us they love the tranquility and connection to nature they get when they visit that area,” Bixler said in an email.
The boat ramp at the east end of that walk is also seeing some traffic from residents looking to enjoy fishing, kayaking and tubing on the water, Bixler said.
On July 1, the town pool will open, she said, as they’ve had many phone calls from residents who are interested in swimming. The playgrounds and pavilions are also open for the public, Bixler said, but people appear to be more interested in activities that don’t involve frequently touched surfaces.
“Our experience has been that some people feel safe using pavilions and the playground, and some people do not,” Bixler said in an email.
Tree Trekkers, an outdoor aerial adventure park, was just starting to build momentum after opening in Frederick in August when they had to close for the winter.
Two weeks after reopening in March, they had to shut down again, this time because of COVID-19.
“We were actually a week away from having to make some tough decisions, but then the (Paycheck Protection Program loan) came through,” said Ashley Schweinhart, site and marketing manager for the family-owned attraction featuring harnessed outdoor climbing courses and ziplining. “We were able to keep our four salaried managers on with that.”
The park resumed operations in May as part of Phase One of Maryland’s reopening plan.
Initially they were only allowed to welcome a maximum of 10 guests at a time and 30 per day, but that number has increased now to 50 percent of their capacity, Schweinhart said. That amounts to 10 per half hour and a total of 200 in a day, though the average has been between 40 and 70, she said.
Tree Trekkers has been able to bring on 25 hourly workers, all but one of them part-time, Schweinhart said.
The park requires guests to wear masks when they’re within six feet of someone they didn’t come with, among other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The fact that the majority of the business is outdoors helps.
“Once you start climbing, you actually are naturally socially distanced,” Schweinhart said, noting the various elements are at least six feet apart. “Harnesses are left outside to sit in the sun because UV light’s actually pretty detrimental to the virus from the research we’ve seen.”
Other outdoor recreation activities like hiking, biking and driving tours have seen an increase in interest during the pandemic, said Melissa Muntz, marketing and communications manager for Visit Frederick.
The organization put out a “stay-in-your-car driving scavenger hunt” a while back, she said, encouraging people to locate distinctly Frederick points of interest, like historic aqueducts and historic covered bridges.
“Given the situation, people are very interested in just driving around,” Muntz said.
Frederick is a popular driving destination for its Civil War sites, but Muntz said they aren’t seeing people come from as far away right now for those and other attractions.
“People that are looking that are out-of-towners are closer to the area,” she said.
West Virginia’s relatively low number of reported COVID-19 cases compared with other states could add to the allure of its outdoor attractions, said Mark Lewis, president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lewis said he spoke to a Pennsylvania resident recently who was planning to visit the area for the July Fourth holiday weekend.
“One of the reasons he cited is they were looking at coming someplace that was less risky, had seen less impact from the virus,” he said.
North Bend State Park in Ritchie County has been drawing interest, Lewis said, thanks in part to West Virginia’s discount on lodging at its parks for in-state residents. The park is home to a 72-mile stretch of Rail Trail, as well as hiking trails, cabins, campgrounds and fishing opportunities.
In the southern part of the state, the 700-plus miles of Hatfield-McCoy Trails reopened May 21, two months after closing down. So far, the response has been tremendous, with a 20 to 25 percent increase in ridership since the reopening, said Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority.
More than 60 businesses provide lodging for trail riders. So far, more people seem to be interested in cabins than hotel rooms, Lusk said. Because indoor dining is still limited to 50 percent capacity, “there is not the traffic to the local restaurants that we normally see,” he said.
Business has been steady but different for Infinity Charters owner Frank Schoenacker. In prior years, he’s run fishing charters for visitors to Chautauqua County from California, Colorado, Indiana and Arizona.
“I’m not getting any of that. It’s all either Pennsylvania, Ohio or New York,” said Schoenacker, who operates two boats — one on Lake Erie and one on Chautauqua Lake.
People aren’t booking as far in advance either, but there is plenty of activity on the lakes, he said.
“People using their boats, it’s something they can do,” Schoenacker said.
With five lakes and trail networks for hiking, biking and horseback riding, the area has long been an outdoor recreation destination, said Megan Arnone, marketing and communications coordinator for the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau. That could be even more appealing as folks look for vacation activities that don’t involve air travel or gathering in large numbers indoors.
“In a way, we’re in a good position to welcome people who decide to travel this summer,” Arnone said.
Schoenacker said the first half of the year has been a roller coaster but once fishing and boating activities were able to resume in mid-May, things settled down.
“This by no means will be a record year, but it’ll be OK,” he said. “And I can deal with that.”
Peek ‘n Peak Resort in Clymer reopened about three weeks ago. Employees are meeting and exceeding requirements to keep things sanitized as visitors return to golf, zipline, swim and more, said Nick Scott Sr., president of Scott Enterprises, which owns the resort. Staff members are wearing masks and have removed tables to allow for proper social distancing in dining areas, among a host of other steps, he said.
The resort is offering deep discounts, Scott said, including a package deal with the company’s Splash Lagoon indoor water park resort. About half an hour away in Erie County, Pennsylvania, it opened on Friday for the first time in more than three months.
“We’re trying to entice people to come back out,” Scott said. “We’re just kind of climbing out of that hole.”
Although they had to lay off employees while closed, the company used the down time to make improvements, he said.
“I think the guests are going to … be pleasantly surprised at the condition of everything and some of the new attractions that we have,” Scott said.
In the buckeye state, most state parks and outdoor spaces remained open during shutdowns. While out exploring Ohio, people are asked to maintain social distancing, stay close to home and gather with less than 10 people.
Park visitors are welcome to hike, fish, boat, swim and picnic. Some marinas in the state are now open, including ramps, fishing piers, archery ranges, dog parks and golf courses.
The only park that has remained closed is Hocking Hills State Park, including the campground, cabins, and Old Man’s Cave, which is planned to reopen for the Fourth of July.
Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager of Ohio State Parks and Watercraft, said the trails of the popular forest were very narrow and it would have been impossible to maintain social distancing while traveling them.
“We’ve redesigned the trails to become one-way trails, which we believe won’t just be safer for COVID-19, but we’re thinking long-term,” Hetzel-Evans said. “We think this may make our trail system in Hocking safer in general.”
She said state workers built new trails in Hocking Hills and replaced signs.
“Because of the ruggedness of the terrain, and it’s tough to get to those trails, much of that work had to be done by hand,” she said. “You certainly can’t take bulldozers into Hocking Hills because that would ruin the landscape that everyone wants to see. We had to do a lot of it the old fashioned way, a lot of walking in, carrying in hand tools, digging posts. Our staff has been extremely busy but also really hard at work so we could get Hocking Hills open to the public.”
For all parks, limited parking is enforced. If a lot is full, visitors must move on to a different area or return at a later time. Camping at all state parks must be done by reservation.
At most parks, there are limited restrooms and shower stations are open.
Hetzel-Evans said visitors are encouraged to call ahead and check with the park before you go if there are concerns. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is also updating its website weekly with openings and closures.