FARGO — Local, state and federal parks are seeing lots of visitors these days, and park officials say people are citing stress over the coronavirus as a major motivator for getting outdoors.
Some enjoying the park in recent days made it clear they needed a family outing in the wake of school closings aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, said Grant Geis, chief ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western edge of North Dakota.
Geis said current traffic numbers weren't available to compare with past years, but he said the number of people attending the park in recent days is on a par with other early spring periods when the weather is nice.
While trails in the national park remain open, Geis said two visitor centers, one in the park's north unit and one in the south unit, have been closed due to virus concerns.
With warmer months approaching and the price of gas getting cheaper all the time — the local price per gallon is about $1.70 while the national average is around $2 a gallon — one might wonder if national parks will only grow in their appeal as families look for recreational options in the face of coronavirus stress.
Gene LaDoucer, spokesman for AAA North Dakota, isn't so sure.
LaDoucer said gasoline consumption nationally is down 40-50% compared to a year ago and while prices remain low, he said that may not be enough to entice people to take to the road when so many are experiencing employment challenges.
He acknowledged that national parks are hugely popular destinations when the weather turns warmer, but he said that is under normal circumstances .
LaDoucer said even in the outdoors, with wide open spaces and lots of fresh air, people need to be practicing social distancing, "so you're not unintentionally contracting or spreading the coronavirus."
He said AAA advises anyone planning to visit a state or national park to check ahead to determine whether any expected conveniences have been affected by coronavirus concerns.
"I would anticipate there is going to be significant pent-up demand once things improve and that travel will spring back quickly, but when that time will be is anyone's guess," LaDoucer said.
He added that in the near term, when it comes to vacations people may opt for home vacations, also known as staycations, similar to periods when the price of gas was high.
Live exercise classes
Parks in Fargo seem to be enjoying lots of attention these days, according to Katie McCormick, a spokeswoman for the Fargo Park District.
"We've seen people tagging us more on social media that they're going out for walks as a family around the neighborhood, or they're taking their dog for a walk," McCormick said.
"We are definitely encouraging folks to use the trails and to be smart about the ways they use the trails and self-police the social distancing," McCormick said.
She added that at a time when many park district activities have been canceled, people can go to the park district's Facebook page for ideas about what they can do at home.
Also, she said, the Courts Plus Community Fitness Facebook page offers daily videos of live group exercise classes, and she said an online archive offers videos of recent classes people can watch on demand.
Chris Niskanen, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said visitation at Minnesota's state parks has varied as of late, but he added: "It would be safe to say some were quite busy, while others were moderately busy. So yes, people are getting outdoors."
Niskanen said numbers weren't available for how current park visitation compares to past years. He suggested, however, that if visitors experience a Minnesota state park that is overly busy that they look for other options, such as regional or city parks.
When heading for a state park, Niskanen said it's a good idea to bring your own hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
He added that park officials are asking that people follow Minnesota Department of Health guidelines on safety maintenance, including handwashing and social distancing.
In North Dakota, traffic at state parks is up from what would normally be expected this time of year.
That's according to Kristin Byram, a spokeswoman for North Dakota Parks and Recreation, who said the busiest parks are those located near certain cities, including: Turtle River State Park near Grand Forks; Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan; Lake Metigoshe State Park near Bottineau; and Grahams Island State Park near Devils Lake.
Whether the influx is linked to stress over the coronavirus isn't clear, Byram said.
"The weather has been really beautiful, that's definitely a contributing factor," she said, adding that park officials are urging people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on reducing the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, including lots of handwashing and consistent social distancing.
She said the distancing part may not be that difficult to achieve, as state parks are vast areas and visitors don't necessarily see much of each other.
'People are going to go stir crazy'
Holly Heitkamp, director of parks and recreation for the city of Moorhead, said that while there aren't figures on how many people are visiting parks, evidence suggests trails are seeing heavy use these days.
"Park maintenance told me they were seeing a lot more (use) because they were continuing to pick up garbage and the garbage has increased," Heitkamp said, adding that the bump in visitors is understandable.
"People are going to go stir crazy if they don't get out and about, as long as they do the social distancing and follow the guidelines that have been put out," she said.
Heitkamp said with warm temperatures forecast for this coming weekend, it's likely park trails and walkways will see even more activity. Which is fine, she said, as long as people keep social distancing in mind.
"You certainly don't want to gather," she said.
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