After the COVID-19 pandemic caused restrictions on certain activities in Maryland, many residents turned to state parks for time outdoors with friends and family, including Nancy Briggs, a 76-year-old resident of Asbury Senior Living Community in Solomons.
Briggs said this week that her visits to Jefferson Patterson State Park have given her the opportunity to get out of her apartment and see her family throughout the pandemic.
When lockdowns first began earlier this year, she said no visitors were allowed in the senior community. While Briggs’ family lived in Silver Spring, they struggled to spend time together outside of virtual Zoom calls.
“In early summer we decided we wanted to meet up somewhere we could social distance,” she said. “And outside is always safer.”
Briggs, along with her daughter and granddaughter, began visiting Jefferson Patterson State Park for lunches and walks, always wearing masks, she said.
She mentioned there are usually a number of people at the park but it never “felt crowded” and there is enough space for groups of people to stay away from each other.
Briggs isn’t alone in her desire for fresh air and company.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced last week the Maryland Park Service is reporting a total of 17.1 million visitors to date in 2020, already surpassing the previous record of 14.9 million visitors in 2019, with three months still remaining in the year. During peak season in July, state parks attracted 3.4 million visitors, compared to 2.5 million during the same time period last year.
Parks throughout the state have seen a significant uptick in attendance across the board, which continues a trend of recent years but has accelerated dramatically in 2020. Various parks within the system have had to close their gates temporarily due to maximum capacity a record 260 times so far in 2020, well above the 10-year annual average of 79 closures per year, and surpassing the previous record of 121.
Increases have been seen in both daytime use and overnight camping.
“As our state continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, we have consistently reminded the people of Maryland that outside activity is much safer than inside activity,” Hogan said in a prepared statement. “We are so pleased to see that Marylanders have heeded that advice by visiting our state parks in record numbers this year to exercise safely, get some fresh air, and spend time with family.”
From the beginning of the pandemic, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Park Service developed detailed response plans and DNR will continue to adapt its plans as the state enters new phases of the Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery and new health advisories are issued.
Patrick Bright, southeastern region manager for the Maryland Park Service, told Southern Maryland News last week, in addition to providing signage with information on the latest guidelines at places of contact, the parks have been closing restrooms for more frequent cleanings. Playground equipment was off-limits for a while earlier in the pandemic, he said, adding the public has been very accepting of new requirements.
The ranger mentioned the parks were able to procure personal protective equipment for employees and a special type of cleansing solution which is effective against COVID-19.
“It was miraculous but we got it,” he said.
Unfortunately, many parks have had to deal with the high volume of visitors with less staff, as challenges arose in hiring and maintaining personnel through the pandemic, he said.
In Southern Maryland there are 10 state parks. Some have seen increases, while others saw decreases in visitors compared to last year, but Bright pointed out attendance numbers remained high, despite campgrounds and beaches at the parks opening a month later than usual.
Calvert Cliffs State Park in Calvert County saw 130,696 visitors last year, according to a document provided by DNR, but this year that number has more than doubled already.
“People are having more family time and want to explore the outdoors while there are restrictions on other leisure activities,” Bright said.
Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County often has to close for capacity reasons for hours at a time, especially on weekends, but lately “Calvert Cliffs closes constantly” as well, he said, adding they had to close it this past weekend due to the park reaching its capacity.
The park occasionally closed after reaching capacity in the past but “nothing like this,” he said. In April, there was an issue with people parking on the side of the road and sneaking into the park after it had been closed, but Bright said the problem was “nipped in the bud” after working with the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and other officials.
The parking lot at St. Mary’s River State Park in St. Mary’s County is closed for renovations but the park is still open to visitors. Bright pointed out while people can’t park in the main lot, there are outlying parking areas available. He said renovations on the lot are estimated to be complete in the next month.
There were no park closures in Charles County, partly due to the fact one of their three state parks, Smallwood, is popular for bass fishing, which wasn’t done as much this year due to coronavirus related travel restrictions, Bright said.
Back at Jefferson Patterson State Park, Briggs’ daughter recently acquired a family dog, who accompanied the group last Friday during their park visit.
Being unable to see friends and family because of restrictions put in place because of COVID-19 revealed how important human interaction is, Briggs noted, expressing how grateful she is to “get away from her regular surroundings” and enjoy the outdoors.