While non-essential businesses in Arkansas remain closed due to the coronavirus, state parks are still open for the public to enjoy, though some changes have been made to encourage social distancing.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism announced the closures of its lodges at DeGray Lake Resort, Mount Magazine, Petit Jean and Queen Wilhelmina. That’s in addition to the closures of events at the parks and visitors centers at 13 state parks, with exceptions granted for people checking into camp grounds or cabins.
Meg Matthews is the deputy chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. She says the department has. placed posters on the practice of proper social distancing when visiting the parks.
"We’re putting up these posters on the dos and do nots to encourage people to use our parks responsibly. Also, we’re encouraging people to try to use the restroom before they come to the park." Matthews said.
Visitors should also bring their own water since the public drinking fountains at the parks are currently shut off to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While the parks are still staffed with rangers and other needed personnel, Matthews says resources are still stretched and recommends patrons not to take risks when visiting any parks.
"Now is not the time to take on a hike or climb that you think might be a little above your capacity. Really stick to the low-level stuff. We have plenty of paved trails that you can go on that are nice and safe and you can still go out and get some fresh air," Matthews said.
In addition to hiking and walking, mountain biking is another activity for Arkansans who want to practice social distancing. Joe Jacobs is the marketing and revenue manager for Arkansas State Parks. He says there are multiple trails that tend to have few visitors.
"Arkansas is home to five International Mountain Bicycling Association epic trails. Those are all long trails. Most of them are very remote. I mean, they were built for social distancing. You get out there and you don’t see anybody for hours," Jacobs said.
While lodges and visitor centers remain closed, cabins and campgrounds are still available to rent. Jacobs says the parks are staying busy with the number of reservations is down only 6-9% from where they would normally be this time of year.
"Which is kind of amazing considering what’s going on right now and we have some facilities that are not fully functioning. I don’t know if that’s going to trend down or not," Jacobs said.
Though Arkansas Parks does not have a way to track daily visitors, Jacobs does think park usage is up.
"Since we don’t charge for people to come to the parks, we don’t have a central place where are coming in and checking in as they come to the park so we’re just…it’s pretty much anecdotal. It looks busier than normal," Jacobs said.
While Arkansas Parks is advising people practice social distancing, that may be hard to enforce. Jacobs says there isn’t much they can do to stop people from gathering in groups, though they have taken some action such as limiting available parking at Pinnacle Mountain State Park.
"There’s nothing that we can really do to say 'Hey you’ve got to break this up.' Our employees need to be safe too and they need to keep their distance also. So really there’s not a lot that we can do to get people to follow the guidelines. We’re trying to come up with as much educational stuff as we can, but people will still do what people do," Jacobs said.