Enjoying state parks amid COVID-19 outbreak

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West Branch State Park
West Branch State Park. Photo: Sara Welch.

Feeling the weight of the COVID-19 quarantine like everyone else, I wanted to spend some time outside last weekend. On Saturday, I decided to get my bike down do some maintenance and install the basket I got for Christmas. Just as I finished airing up the tires, the intermittent storms reached a breaking point and encouraged me to take her for a spin.

I rode down to the end of the dam at West Branch State Park and back home — about 3 miles round trip. It was a nice brisk ride. Along the way, I passed about four fishing boats, six people fishing from the rocks at the edge of the dam and 10 people walking on top of the dam. It wasn’t too crowded and everyone was pleasant while maintaining a safe distance.

Sunday was another story entirely. With temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s, the dam and the adjacent parking lot were packed all day. On a quick trip past, I noticed groups of people congregating around their vehicles, laughing and talking, and children playing on the swing set. While it was nice to see such camaraderie in such an uncertain time, it was also alarming.

It’s odd to think of needing to distance ourselves outdoors or in nature because generally, at least for me, being outdoors is a welcome isolation from society. However, when all of the typical avenues for entertainment have been taken away and people find themselves without a guaranteed source of income, the outdoors are a welcome reprieve for a larger segment of the population.

While it’s great to enjoy nature, being outdoors doesn’t make anyone immune to COVID-19. Along with abiding by social distancing regulations that have been put in place, state park visitors should be aware that some facilities have been closed to the public and recommendations for visitors have been put in place.

Closed facilities

Effective March 24, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources closed a number of facilities to the public in response to the developing public health situation caused by COVID-19.

Here’s a list of facilities that have been closed at all ODNR properties:

  • Campgrounds
  • Cabins
  • Golf courses
  • Restrooms
  • Shower houses
  • Playgrounds
  • State park marinas

Safety precautions

Other public outdoors spaces at state parks remain open for public enjoyment; however, ODNR asks that visitors follow the National Recreation and Park Association’s guidelines for staying safe while they are out.

What’s still open?

  • Wildlife areas
  • Forests
  • Nature preserves
  • Hiking and biking trails
  • Dog parks
  • Non-marina docks

If you’re planning to visit one of these public outdoor spaces as the weather gets nicer, take precautions to protect yourself and others. Review and follow these guidelines:

  • Follow CDC’s guidance on personal hygiene before visiting trails — wash hands, carry hand sanitizer, do not use trails if you have symptoms, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, etc.
  •  Observe at all times CDC’s minimum recommended social distancing of six feet from other people. Practice it and know what it looks like, so you can maintain it as you walk, bike or hike.
  •  Warn other trail users of your presence and as you pass to allow proper distance and step off trails to allow others to pass, keeping minimum recommended distances at all times. Signal your presence with your voice, bell or horn.
  •  Note that public restrooms are closed to trail and park users. Use the restroom before you leave and time outings so you are not dependent on public facilities.
  •  Bring your own water or drinks. Public drinking fountains may be disabled. However, even if they’re still operable, they should not be used to prevent the spread of germs.
  •  Bring your own trash bag and dispose of your own trash. Do not litter or leave trash behind. ake Taking everything you brought with you back out will help protect park workers.
  • Keep your dog on a leash to maintain safe physical distance between yourself and your pet and other dogs and pet owners.
  • Be aware of all closed facilities within the park and do not use them, including playgrounds and swing sets. At this time, there is no present guidance from CDC on how to clean and disinfect outdoor equipment to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.
  • Bring your own equipment. Some parks and bike trails offer public pumps to riders coming to the trail. However, this is just one more way to spread germs. In instances like this where shared public equipment is offered, avoid using it.

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