Park officials are closely monitoring — and expressing some concerns — about too many people congregating together in outdoor spaces during the coronavirus outbreak.
Because of overcrowding, Missouri State Parks announced Tuesday the closure of four state parks and the partial closure of another starting Thursday.
In Springfield, park rangers are telling groups of people to maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance from each other.
And at the Buffalo National River, park rangers are trying to keep too many paddlers from congregating at popular river put-ins while also assessing whether the national park can remain open during the coronavirus crisis.
The Missouri State Parks closures go into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday and are scheduled to continue until April 30.
The operation modifications, effective at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 2, include the following:Castlewood State Park will close;
Elephant Rocks State Park will close;
Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park will close;
Weston Bend State Park will close;
St. Joe State Park will close the off-road vehicle riding area.
Gates to individual parking lots may close at all state parks when the lot reaches capacity.
“We’re continuing to evaluate the situation and make adjustments to operations as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves,” said Carol Comer, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “As conditions and recommendations change, we will make additional closures as needed. Before heading out to a state park, we encourage our citizens to check mostateparks.com for advisory updates and the latest actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We understand the importance of physical activity and getting outside during this unprecedented time,” said Mike Sutherland, director of DNR’s Division of State Parks.
“If a park looks full, then it is,” said Sutherland. “Whether you’re inside or outside, you must follow the guidance provided by the CDC and Governor Parson: Keep 6 feet between you and others, avoid crowded areas, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose with your elbow when you cough or sneeze, and, most importantly, stay home if you are sick.”
Missouri State Parks encourages those who visit a park to carry hand sanitizer, soap, wipes and drinking water, as services may be limited.
Sutherland said the two state parks trout fishing areas — Roaring River and Bennett Spring — have been heavily used in recent days, especially since the Missouri Department of Conservation dropped the need for a fishing permit for a while.
However, Sutherland said he doesn't think either trout park will need to close.
"We're monitoring those very closely," he said. "It appears we're seeing fewer anglers since the conservation department stopped stocking fish."
Jenny Edwards, spokeswoman for Springfield-Greene County Parks, said a lot of people have been using local parks, especially as the weather warmed and the sun came out.
But aside from closing playgrounds, Edwards said outdoor park areas and trails remain open.
"We are concerned about people maintaining safe distances — stay 6 feet away, don't gather in groups, don't go if you are sick," she said. "It would be logistically difficult to close many of our parks. We are very pleased the stay-at-home order included allowing people to go outdoors. But people being cooperative and being mindful of physical distancing in our parks is essential for this to work."
Edwards said the Park Board is in daily contact with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
"If the health department has a concern, we will respond," she said.
Even though many conservation department areas are out in the wild, it's still important to follow physical distancing guidelines to slow the spread of coronavirus, said MDC spokesman Francis Skalicky.
"The outdoors is such an ingrained part of southwest Missouri culture," he said. "But even if we're outdoors, we do have to remember those rules. Stay apart 6 feet. Bring some hand sanitizer and wipes, and if you touch a handrail or doorknob out in the park that somebody else could be touching, wipe it down."
At the Buffalo National River in Arkansas, park rangers are doing their best to keep people and paddlers apart, according to ranger Cassie Branstetter.
"This past weekend we had a large influx of visitors," she said. "Many were not abiding by the CDC guidelines to keep social distancing," she said. "We are continuing to assess the situation."
So far the river and trails are open to paddlers, though campgrounds are closed. There were problems with too many paddlers trying to get on the river at one time over the weekend.
"Over the weekend we definitely did have issues with that," Branstetter said. "Our rangers were attempting to space paddlers as they entered the water. They'd put in and wait a bit to keep at least a 6-foot distance."
Branstetter said she couldn't say if the entire park might be closed if people continued to ignore physical distancing rules.
"I don't have an answer on that now," she said. "We are reassessing the situation on a daily basis."