New Hampshire is laying out a potential phased plan for resuming normal operations at state parks and other outdoor recreation sites, with new controls to protect public health.
Most state parks have remained open and well trafficked, including by out-of-state visitors, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, many public and private campgrounds, beaches and other amenities and attractions have closed.
On Monday, at a meeting of a task force looking at how to reopen the state’s economy, state parks director Phil Bryce said workers turned away more than 200 cars from an at-capacity Mount Monadnock State Park this past weekend.
As they try to ramp back up toward normalcy in the coming months, Bryce says they'll prioritize crowd control, limiting interactions with staff, and new cleaning and enforcement protocols.
“One of the biggest [public messaging] points is, ‘Please help us keep our state parks open,’ because people’s behavior is going to be really, really important to that,” Bryce says.
Bryce says his agency is still seeking guidance the best ways to disinfect their facilities, and whether they can require park visitors to wear face masks. He says park staff will be issued personal protective equipment and screened routinely for coronavirus symptoms.
Visitors will also be offered refunds if they reserve park space under new systems but fall ill. Bryce says park staff will reserve the right to turn away visitors who appear to be sick, and will take other steps to enforce social distancing at park facilities.
The first phase of Bryce’s plan addresses sites that would typically open in May, if not sooner: campgrounds, state beaches, ATV and OHRV trails and the Flume Gorge.
At campsites, Bryce says they’ll plan to let in fewer, smaller groups than normal. They’ll also convert all permanent restrooms to single or family occupancy only, add more portable toilets, and require online-only reservations and check-ins, among other changes.
At Flume Gorge, people will also have to reserve their visits online in advance and follow other social distancing guidelines. The park will not allow bus groups until further notice, and will remove its indoor seating and most exhibits to cut down on crowds.
For ATV trails, Bryce says they’ll reopen state-owned corridors on May 23, as usual. Connector trails to nearby towns will remain closed, and capacity limits at parking lots will be enforced.
Many other motorized trails will remain closed at least until state lodging and restaurants are allowed to reopen. The same goes for most concessions, rental facilities, playgrounds, event spaces and other amenities with tight quarters, such as the Franconia Notch tramway.
At the state’s inland and Seacoast beaches, Bryce says they’re still deciding on how many people can visit safely while maintaining safe distances. The state does plan to limit parking and require online reservations for amenities like picnic tables.
Bryce says they’re unsure whether to allow some stationary groups of beach visitors, or to only allow “transitory” users like swimmers, walkers and joggers. The state has also not decided whether to provide lifeguards – but will work to enforce public health guidelines.
“We have a rule that you can’t endanger yourself or others, basically,” Bryce says, “so if we see major abuses of the standards associated with this response to COVID-19, we have the tools to take action.”
Private sector advocates for New Hampshire’s tourism industry – the state's top-earning sector, which includes golf courses and private campgrounds – told legislators that they want to reopen their attractions whenever restaurants and hotels are allowed to do the same.
“This will be an opportunity for the state to shine in partnership with its attractions,” said Bruce Berke, a reopening task force member representing travel and small business groups.
Berke urged the state to keep funding its tourism marketing campaigns, touting “the attractiveness of New Hampshire… that we’re open for business and we can do it safely.”
“I think that combination will go a long way,” he says.