Yesterday marked one year since WHO announced the official start of the pandemic. While the then-unnamed coronavirus had been seen spreading, we had no idea the vast toll it would take on the world. People here in America were still behaving normally. Our office was still operating as usual. The weekend before, one of our team members spent a day at Disneyland, and another was out for a hike in a park. All that would soon grind to a halt.
Then we fell into an odd world where we tried to find a “new normal.” People hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We were asked, sometimes ordered, to stay home at a time when many of us wanted to get outside and be away from other people and in nature.
The national parks opened and closed, over and over again. They offered tours online. They had rules about masks. They had reservation systems. You could go in, but not camp. The trails were open, but the bathrooms were closed. Some trails were open, others closed. Some entrances were open, others closed. The whole thing was confusing. And, in addition to the pandemic, massive park fires shut down several parks for weeks.
Now, the National Park Service (NPS) has reviewed the data. In news that will come as a surprise to no one, park attendance was incredibly low last year. The number of visitors dropped by nearly a third, down to 237 million. It’s a lousy time for park visitation to be down when we all really need the fresh air and sunshine. But, there were many times when health and government officials didn’t know enough about the virus to feel comfortable telling people to go out where they might come in contact with people they didn’t know.
“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall well-being,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”
Under the current guidelines, face masks are required on all federal lands when social distancing cannot be maintained — even outdoors in parking lots and on trails. Some people are avoiding the parks until the restrictions are removed. The reservation system is currently not in place; anyone can visit any time. However, the NPS said they might have to reinstate it if too many visitors rush back once more people are vaccinated. The parks could become overcrowded when people feel safe.
No one thinks that the national parks are a thing of the past; this has just been a horrible year all around. “The record numbers we’ve been seeing the last few months lead us to believe that visitation this year will bounce back and possibly exceed previous years,” Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Superintendent Clay Jordan said. “It demonstrates people’s desire to get outdoors and experience the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. With more regional travel in the last year, we hope visitors from our local communities have been able to enjoy these parks which are just a drive away.”
Our team is ready and eager to get back out there!