D.C. Area Parks Are Seeing Record Numbers Of Visitors In The Pandemic "I wasn't really outdoorsy before, but now I'm discovering new places around the D.C. area and seeing a whole new side of this place I've never seen before," said one local resident.
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NPR logo D.C. Area Parks Are Seeing Record Numbers Of Visitors In The Pandemic

D.C. Area Parks Are Seeing Record Numbers Of Visitors In The Pandemic

The sun sets over Shenandoah National Park. Mary Tyler March/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Mary Tyler March/DCist/WAMU

As the coronavirus pandemic quickly stole what once were our normal lives — the days when many of would go to our offices, meet friends for a baseball game, or play an open mic night — it seems everyone had a breaking point.

Shannon Rinella had adjusted to her new lifestyle by July when she decided her pandemic routine could use a shake up.

"I think the grind really just hit me at that point," Rinella, an avid traveler from Reston, Virginia, said. "I could white knuckle it for a while, but I said, 'I need to do something different for myself for a little bit."

As COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. in January and February, officials braced for its arrival in the D.C. region. On March 30, D.C., Maryland and Virginia leaders ordered everyone to stay home. Restaurants, businesses and gyms were ordered to shut down, crowds were banned, and non-vital travel was highly discouraged. Life came to a screeching halt.

As the days passed into weeks, many found themselves cooped up at home all day. Some turned to the outdoors for a safe place to escape.

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"The biggest thing has been clearing my mind when you're on a trail," Rinella said.

She works for a large hotel company and was used to the excitement of traveling. But during the lockdown, she had to find a way to replace the sensation of visiting a new city for the first time. So every weekend Rinella visited places she'd never explored locally — trails at Great Falls State Park, Riverbed Park, Bull Run Park and others.

"It's just you and the trail pretty much," Rinella continued. "And the things you need to sort out for work or personal life ... You have the opportunity to do so."

Rinella isn't alone. Parks are a great way to be outside, critical for health and wellness and remaining socially distanced from others, according to the park advocacy group Trust for Public Land, which is tracking park visitation during the pandemic. Despite closures in the spring, overall visitation for parks in the region during COVID-19 is up compared to the same time last year. In Shenandoah National Park, one popular escape near D.C., visitation was up 38% this July compared to July 2019.

Aaron Maisler of Arlington used to get his thrills out of performing at open mic nights around the region. He's working on making a new type of guitar with swappable parts and was excited to share the concept with musicians. But that social and business opportunity disappeared with the pandemic.

In June, Maisler and his sister bought inflatable kayaks.

"What the pandemic did was create a relentless hunger to find things to do," Maisler said. "Kayaking just made sense. Your priorities change with the world that has changed ... We were just trying to find something new that we could actually do."

For $90 (though good luck finding one now) the Maisler siblings found a weekly activity with outings in the waters of Annapolis, Mallows Bay and Fletcher's Cove in the Potomac.

"In the end, human beings need to go outside and do things together and this was just such an excellent way to spend time with my sister and be outside without having to worry about social distancing," Maisler said. "I wasn't really outdoorsy before, but now I'm discovering new places around the D.C. area and seeing a whole new side of this place I've never seen before."

Aaron Maisler and his sister took up kayaking during the pandemic. Courtesy of/Aaron Maisler hide caption

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Courtesy of/Aaron Maisler

At first, many estimated they'd go back to their normal lives in maybe a few weeks or months. Then stay-at-home orders were extended.

Karl Lerebours of Burtonsville, Maryland, used to spend his free time hanging out with his girlfriend and doing things in D.C. or shopping at area malls. The pair got through the first few months of the pandemic by watching TV, but by May, both were burnt out on Netflix.

Via a direct message on Twitter, Lerebours rattled off his list of parks he and his girlfriend visited instead of staying on the couch: Oregon Ridge Park & Nature Center, Centennial Park, Patapsco Valley State Parks, Great Falls on the Maryland side, Stony Run trail, Druid Hill Park, Montebello in Virginia, the Northern Central Railroad Trail, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. He bikes by himself or walks with his girlfriend at least two to three times a week. Lerebours has even picked up some birdwatching.

"It doesn't fully compensate for how life was before, but it definitely helps," he said.

Visitation Up Big For State, National Parks

Visitation at state parks in Maryland and Virginia and at Shenandoah National Park have mostly followed the same trend: each saw declines in the spring as the first wave of the pandemic forced the region to stay at home and parks closed or limited access. That was followed by significant increases in the summer as campgrounds and other facilities reopened.

Virginia State Parks Director Melissa Baker said visits to the state's system were down in April, but rebounded to 2019 levels in May, even though overnight options remained closed.

"As things began to stabilize — if you can say that about 2020 — and people kind of saw what was available ... we started seeing a lot more day use," she said.

With overnight facilities and interpretive centers now open again, Virginia parks are continuing to see big visitor numbers, especially in parks located in Northern Virginia near the D.C. urban center.

Many local parks are on track to beat previous yearly visitation totals. In Maryland, the state park system had already seen 13.1 million visitors by mid-August — closing in fast on the 14.8 million visitor figure for all of 2019. In Virginia, Baker said visitation is up 2.6% overall compared to last year — despite a very sluggish April, which was 14% below 2019 visitor rates. And in Shenandoah National Park, visitation was up 38% this July compared to July 2019.

Monthly visits to Maryland state parks are up in 2020. Created by/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Created by/DCist/WAMU

Shenandoah spokeswoman Claire Comer noted the park's busiest month — October — is still ahead; it typically brings in about 24% of the park's yearly visitor totals.

But crowds can pose a threat to the delicate ecosystems to parks like Shenandoah that the National Park Service is tasked with protecting. Comer lists a number of issues the park has been confronting as more people discover it: campfires in picnic areas left burning, trash not appropriately packed out, dog poop left in bags tied to trees or at trailheads, and abandoned charcoal grills (which violate Shenandoah's rule against open fires outside of park-provided fire rings or grills). Several other Virginia state parks have experienced similar damage during the pandemic.

Budgetary concerns have prevented Shenandoah from hiring additional staff to deal with the pandemic influx of visitors, Comer said, so the park is counting on visitors to do their part and follow the rules.

Some areas of Shenandoah are bursting with people, too. Comer said already-popular hikes at Old Rag, White Oak Canyon, Dark Hollow Falls, Hawksbill, Bearfence, and Mary's Rock are all heavily trafficked these days. A few weekends ago, Comer said, every parking lot at the Old Rag trailhead was full before 9 a.m.

"Even if you found a place to hike, is that really the experience you want on Old Rag, if you're going to stand in line for two hours to get through the chute? That's just, you know, that's not a fun day," she said.

Comer strongly encourages Shenandoah visitors to plan their trips ahead of time to explore parts of the park outside of the popular central section. Visitors, she said, can use the information on the park's app and website, where they can also buy park passes to cut down on interactions with rangers at park entrances.

Recreational visits to Shenandoah National Park in 2020, compared with 2018 and 2019. Created by/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Created by/DCist/WAMU

Addressing Unequal Access To Parks

Early on in the pandemic, officials closed roads in parks to traffic and opened them to recreation. That move included Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park and roads in Anacostia Park and Fort Dupont Park in Southeast D.C. While Beach Drive is still closed until Oct. 9, the roads in the Southeast parks have reopened to cars in June, according to residents who have expressed consternation.

A Twitter conversation among D.C. residents also pointed out the disparity between recreational options in Rock Creek in the wealthier, whiter part of D.C., and the Arboretum in the lower-income area of Northeast, which is gated and has limited hours. While Rock Creek is operated by the National Park Service, the Arboretum is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research facility, but it does double as an outdoor escape for many locals.

Just like housing and transportation have a segregated past, so too, does park land and other recreational activity. A large part of the history of national parks came after the Industrial Revolution when affluent residents sought a beautiful scenery to escape from the city, according to Joel Pannell, associate director of the Sierra Club's "Outdoors For All" campaign. That campaign aims to make the outdoors safe, inclusive and welcoming for all people — especially for people who historically haven't had access, Pannell said.

"Cities like D.C., people like to talk about gentrification and displacement and it's true," Pannell said. "People of color and low-income people have historically been isolated and concentrated in specific areas, often with less tree canopy compared to say affluent Northwest areas."

A Trust for Public Land analysis indicates that while 98% of D.C. residents have a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes, the few areas in the city that have less access to public parks are mostly in neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast D.C. Many are in Ward 8, the lowest-income ward in the District. Ward 8 is 92% Black.

And being able to walk to a public park doesn't mean the park has well-kept trails or good facilities for community use. A nonprofit called Ward 8 Woods is trying to clean up and maintain the ward's 500 acres of public land, according to founder Nathan Harrington.

The state of access and maintenance varies wildly across those 500 acres, which are owned by either the National Park Service or the D.C. government, Harrington said.

"Some of it is incredibly pristine. You get out there and you feel like you're in Shenandoah," he said. "Other places are unbelievably polluted. It's supposed to be federal park land, but it's basically an unofficial dump."

Ward 8's parks — including Fort Stanton Park and the woods along Oxon Run Parkway, Shepherd Parkway and Suitland Parkway — feature Civil War fortifications, rare plant species not found anywhere else in the District, and views that take in the whole city, according to Harrington.

He believes parks could play an important role in Ward 8's community — especially with recreation options so limited during the pandemic — but that's complicated by a lack of trails and facilities that would make them more welcoming.

"There's only two trails that, you know, kind of lead into small corners of [the land]," he said. "But you look at that and then you look at Rock Creek Park or Glover Archbold Park or the C&O Canal or, you know, a lot of other green spaces in the region that are beautifully maintained, and they'd have miles and miles of trails."

Those parks are all maintained by the Park Service, which also owns much of the public land in Ward 8.

"I think there's some real racial bias there," Harrington said of the lack of access to parkland. "There's an assumption that certain types of people somehow can't handle nice things or that they, you know, just aren't interested in outdoor recreation. I think those kind of become self-fulfilling prophecies," he said.

Ward 8 Woods is currently conducting a community survey to gather neighbors' ideas for types of trails and infrastructure they'd like to see in the ward's parks. But to move forward with trail construction, Harrington will need approval from the Park Service.

Pannell of the Sierra Club said part of the campaign of Outdoors for All is changing the narrative and expanding "outdoors" beyond just hiking or biking or camping.

"As human beings we naturally like to be in nature, we do it in different ways," he said. "Instead of 'how can we get more Black, Brown people to do these activities, let's appreciate and value the way they get outside already.

"That's where diversity and inclusion matters," he said. "To be an outdoors person, does not mean you have to do the things that John Muir [one of the founders of the National Park Service] did."

Walkers and joggers cross the Boulder Bridge on Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park on May 24th. The National Park Service closed Beach Drive to traffic on April 11th to allow more recreation in the park during the pandemic. Jordan Pascale/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/DCist/WAMU

Winter Is Coming

As the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic both seemed to fly and crawl by, health officials are saying we shouldn't expect to go back to normal anytime soon.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and a part of the U.S. coronavirus response team, says Americans shouldn't expect to return to normal life until perhaps late 2021 — even if a vaccine is widely available.

Fall is just around the corner, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s — ideal for outdoor activities and eating outside.

But as winter nears, those socially distanced walks with friends and outdoor dining may become more of a challenge with colder temperatures. As Bloomberg's CityLab recently pointed out, it's time to start planning how to make the most of a coronavirus winter. It highlights how other cold weather areas have adapted to socializing outdoors, like wind breaks, public spaces with heaters and the art of dressing warmly.

Experts warn more time spent indoors, where the virus can linger longer, combined with people getting worn out by pandemic restrictions, and a fast-approaching cold and flu season could mean a resurgence of hospital needs this winter.

Many people don't want the mental health benefits of going outside to go away as the temperatures drop. And they don't want to face social isolation, either.

The region is coldest in January, with averages highs in the mid-40s and lows in the upper-20s. Snow usually arrives mostly in January and February.

Some localities are starting to plan out how to adapt their plans during the pandemic spring and summer to fall and winter.

Since June, Montgomery County has been closing roads to traffic for both recreation and outdoor dining. The county's Outdoor Dining Task Force has been brainstorming ideas since August to use these spaces as the seasons change.

The task force says it hopes to adjust the outdoor dining experiences with fire pits and outdoor heaters, but it'll have research on fire safety, air circulation and other issues.

"Restaurants can serve mulled wine; neighborhood 'fogatas' (fire pits) can bring residents not-too-close, but together to make marshmallow s'mores in limited access streets; and long walks and bike rides with family, friends, and neighbors can be enjoyed even in cold weather," a statement from the county's task force said. "Maybe some of these new ways of life can stay with us long after the pandemic is over."

The task force says it hopes people adjust and "learn to love the chillier and colder weather outdoors as many others do in places like Germany and elsewhere."

Many Twitter users suggested restaurants turn to outdoor heaters, no metal furniture that attracts cold and even blankets at your seat.

BarredInDC, a Twitter account that tracks bars and restaurants, suggested that D.C. fast-track approvals for heaters and other solutions like partial tents so outdoor diners can remain warm.

And hose who found a sense of happiness from the outdoors during the pandemic hope to keep that same feeling as long as they can.

Maisler, who found solace paddling in the region's waters, realizes kayaking will probably have an expiration date with the weather, but thinks he'll try to bring it to Florida for the holidays when he visits family.

Rinella says she looks forward to hiking with the leaves changing, but probably will stop "when it's freezing outside."

Will you?

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