A week ago, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt waived entry fees to national parks across the country to encourage people to use the outdoors as safe escapes during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were limited restrictions and warnings for people to stay at least six feet apart to protect themselves.
Cabin-sick visitors eager to escape the confines of their homes came in droves, partly lured by warmer weather and blooming flowers. The large numbers prompted the National Park Service to close access to some parks this week, including some of the largest and most visited.
“Despite park efforts over the last week to comply with the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidance for social distancing, approximately 30,000 people entered the park daily resulting in congested conditions at popular locations such as Laurel Falls, Newfound Gap, and Cades Cove,” the NPS said in announcing the closure of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park last year. “Visitors from across the country have flocked to the area due to Spring Break, wildflowers, and warm weather conditions.”
The agency has also closed off access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks in Wyoming, Yosemite National Park in California and Hawaii National Park.
“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our local partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the parks,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and Grand Teton Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail, said in a news release. “We are committed to continued close coordination with our state and local partners as we progress through this closure period and are prepared when the timing is right to reopen as quickly and safely as possible.”
The financial implications to the park service of the closures and free entry are unclear. The Interior Department and the National Park Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When Bernhardt last week announced the suspension of fees, some conservationists warned that it could be counterproductive to the efforts to limit public gatherings and overcrowding, and would expose park service employees to greater COVID-19 risks.
Parks have been encouraging visitors to enjoy virtual tours through live webcams. In the Washington area, the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms — which draws visitors from around the world — happened last week. With travel restrictions in place, the “BloomCam,” a live webcam run partly by the NPS, allowed visitors to view the flowers at the Tidal Basin.
The Agriculture Department announced Tuesday it was closing public access to all areas of the National Arboretum, a popular respite for residents of the Washington area that also offers a less crowded view of the cherry blossoms. The Arboretum is not run by the park service.
Still, many of the large national parks remain open with some limitations. The Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, which last year hosted 5.97 million guests, remains open but no fees are being collected, to limit exposure to park employees to the coronavirus.