The Interior Department is reopening national parks across the country even as the agency withholds data on COVID-19 cases among its employees.
Last week, some of the most visited national parks, including Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, became the latest among dozens of parks reopening. Parks had been mostly closed since March after being inundated with guests who were not observing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A spokesperson for Interior didn’t elaborate on how decisions to reopen were being made or whether the agency was tracking coronavirus cases among Park Service staff. The spokesperson referred CQ Roll Call to a prior statement that the “health and safety” of visitors, employees, volunteers and partners continues to be the agency’s “highest” priority.
In contrast, other agencies are readily disclosing the number of coronavirus infections among their staff.
The EPA on Tuesday said it’s aware of 39 employees who have been infected by the virus and one who has died.
The Department of Energy said there have been about 200 current and recovered cases among the agency’s roughly 100,000 employees. Four current cases have been confirmed at DOE’s headquarters in Washington, and 14 others have since recovered.
It’s unclear why Interior isn’t readily making its data public.
“I think the National Park Service and the Department should be more transparent than they are,” said Phil Francis, a chairman at the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “I'm concerned about the safety of staff; I’m concerned about the safety of their families; I’m concerned about the safety of visitors and people in gateway communities.”
The partial reopening of national parks comes as public health officials warn of the likelihood of a jump in coronavirus infections with more states reopening and exposing people to more public interactions.
'Lives in jeopardy'
House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., has been critical of Interior’s plans to reopen the parks, including the Grand Canyon, which was reopened on Friday, and has demanded more information on the plans.
“I recognize the benefits of reopening national parks and other public land sites when appropriate,” Grijlava wrote in a Friday letter. “But rushing to reopen national parks prematurely and in the absence of stringent safeguards threatens public health and puts lives in jeopardy.”
A representative of House Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a close ally of the Trump administration, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The number of infections and deaths have continued to grow each week. The U.S. has so far had more than 1.5 million cases and more than 91,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking cases.
“One of the things I’ve been asking is, what’s different now?” Francis, who worked at the Park Service for four decades before retiring, said. “It seems to me like the situation is still the same. ... The number of people is still going up.”
Following a directive from President Donald Trump, Interior began to reopen national parks in phases early this month. Dozens of parks have with some restrictions, including Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has in recent days toured several national parks ahead of their phased reopening, including the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
Bernhardt in March encouraged people to use the outdoors for respite as stay-home orders were going up across the nation. The agency waived fees at the time, but soon closed parks as they were inundated by throngs of visitors not following social distancing guidelines.
Entrance to reopened parks remains free to help make social distancing “a little easier” and to protect staff by limiting their direct interactions with visitors, Interior said.
Grijalva lamented the reopening when tribal communities living closest to the parks have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and have asked the agency to hold off on making the parks more widely accessible.
“Ensuring the safety of NPS employees, visitors, and gateway communities is your responsibility, and human safety must take precedence over any politically motivated decisions to reopen national park sites,” Grijalva wrote.
Alicyn Gitlin, Grand Canyon program manager for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, last week said it was a “terrible time” to encourage wide scale travel through the Navajo Nation and northern Arizona, where cases have continued to rise in Coconino County, where canyon's South Rim is located.
“The large population that lives at Grand Canyon and all nearby communities are put at risk by this move,” Gitlin said in response to the partial reopening of the Grand Canyon.
By Tuesday, there had been 4,153 confirmed positive cases and 1444 deaths in the Navajo Nation, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
The parks are reopening as several states start to ease stay-at-home orders and allow a limited number of businesses to open.
“Any plan to reopen national parks should make the health and safety of staff, visitors, and nearby communities the top priority, and it is not clear whether that is the case at the moment,” said Jackie Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club's Outdoors For All campaign. “The Trump Administration has shown a lack of leadership on this issue so far, potentially putting parks employees, visitors, and local communities at risk.”