COVID-19 Next Steps: Great Lakes outdoor recreation begins move toward normalcy

COVID-19 Next Steps: Great Lakes outdoor recreation begins move toward normalcy
May 14, 2020 James Proffitt, Great Lakes Now

After nearly two months of reduced access, various levels of restrictions and outright closures, thousands of national, state, provincial and municipal parks, boating ramps, wildlife areas and other outdoor recreation areas are making their return from COVID-19.

Officials are hoping the move will help push life closer to normal for millions of people.

While many sites remained “open” to visitors, restrooms, visitor and education centers, and other popular amenities have been closed for the most part.

Some 520 provincial parks and conservation reserves in Ontario opened May 11, with the remaining 115 slated to open May 15. The areas will be open for limited activities, which currently includes only hiking, bird watching, biking and walking.

“As we continue to make progress in our fight to stop the spread of COVID-19, we are carefully and cautiously reopening the province, starting with certain businesses and retailers, and now our provincial parks and conservation reserves,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford. “I encourage people to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but please do so in a responsible way. Practice physical distancing and follow the rules set out by healthcare officials to stop the spread of this virus.”

Like most outdoor recreational sites, Ontario’s will be returned to full use gradually. According to Jeff Jurek, minister of the environment, conservation and parks, caution remains.

“People are eager to enjoy the warmer weather, stretch their legs and reconnect with nature,” he said. “In consultation with our health experts, we’re working to slowly phase-in the opening of Ontario Parks in a measured way to ensure the health and safety of visitors and staff. People should take note that not all amenities will be open and plan accordingly.”

Closed amenities would include restrooms, water taps, modern and backcountry camping, playgrounds, beaches and other buildings, Jurek said.

Best resource for up-to-date info? The Internet

In recent months, information about the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has changed daily, from infection and death statistics to what is open (or closed) where, and what people can and can’t do in different places.

Given the rapid pace of information disseminated, the best place to find up-to-date information, especially on outdoor recreation, is government websites.

Pennsylvania’s interactive county-by-county breakdown offers detailed information about exactly what’s available at its outdoor recreation locations.

While the state’s Lake Erie boat launches and restrooms are open, so are its thousands of miles of fishing streams.

“It’s still open statewide,” said Amber Nabors, who oversees education, outreach and marketing for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “We’re just encouraging people to be courteous, keep distance by giving six feet or greater between yourself and others.”

Nabors said 3.2 million rainbow, brown and brook trout have been stocked this spring in state waterways.

“We’re hoping people will get out and fish and enjoy the outdoors in Pennsylvania, and of course, be safe,” she said.

Ontario also offers a simple, clickable park-by-park website for specific info on parks.

Folks looking to enjoy nature in Minnesota can check out the state’s Department of Natural Resources website for information, including videos, about current sites and services.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources COVID-19 website also details closures and specifics on any sites that are open.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources boat ramp signs remind anglers to maintain social distancing. (Photo by James Proffitt) 

Michigan, Ohio resume charter fishing

“All of our state parks except one are open with restrictions,” said Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation with Michigan DNR. “We have no campgrounds open, because camping is not considered an essential activity at this time.”

Tippy Dam Recreation Area in Manistee County remains the only MDNR park closed.

As of May 7, Michigan charter fishing has resumed. For more than a month, powerboating in general had been halted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s safety orders.

“Charter activities including guides may resume, providing they prohibit gatherings of a size in which people cannot maintain six-foot distancing and they limit personal interactions with clients or patrons,” Olson explained. “They should provide personal protective equipment as is appropriate for the activity and limit the sharing of tools or equipment.”

Olson said that while the regular restrooms at state boat ramps and parks are currently closed, portable restrooms are available in most cases.

In Ohio, the Great Lakes’ largest charter fleet at just over 800 captains opened May 12 – provided they can meet Gov. Mike DeWine’s safety standards, which are similar to Michigan’s. Last week, the state resumed the sale of non-resident fishing licenses after suspending such sales for more than a month after concerns about out-of-state anglers got the attention of DeWine.

During the coronavirus crisis, most Ohio parks have remained open, according to Sarah Wickham, Ohio Department of Natural Resources communications chief.

“Magee Marsh is closed and there is no scheduled re-opening date yet,” she said. “The boardwalks at Punderson and Maumee state parks are closed, and Hocking Hills is still completely closed.”

Like other states, parks are mostly open though facilities are not. And camping in Ohio State Parks is a no-go for now, Wickham said, with no date set for re-opening.

“We’re trying to keep things open and get back to normal as quickly as possible. However we don’t always know what’s changing when,” she said. “An advisory group on outdoor recreation is having conversations right now about how to safely re-open campgrounds and I believe once that group offers their recommendations they’ll re-open.”

Ohio has more than 175 state parks, wildlife areas and natural preserves. For the most recent information on Ohio outdoors visit the ODNR’s coronavirus website.

While Wickham said the state’s regular restrooms are closed, some locations could have portable restrooms – but don’t count on it.

“We are really asking people to plan ahead with a plan A, plan B and plan C,” she said. “If you go to one of our state parks or outdoor sites and the parking lot is full, use plan B or C. Not to mention all of our sister parks and outdoor areas.”

Wisconsin opens many parks

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers opened 34 state parks on May 1. The move allows for limited use of the state’s sites, with attendance limits and reduced hours of operation. Like other states, restrooms, playgrounds, shelters and many other amenities will remain closed for now.

The plan calls for the sites to remain closed on Wednesdays so that staff can perform maintenance work and upkeep in the absence of visitors.

Wisconsin Sen. Jon Erpenbach, during an April 28 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources press conference, expressed the importance of social distancing.

“I expect Wisconsinites to be a lot smarter about this than they were last time,” he said.

Parks were closed on April 10 because officials observed users in general were not practicing the social distancing which health officials said is necessary to slow and stop the spread of coronavirus.

WDNR officials say staff will be monitoring visitors for both social distancing and keeping the number of people at 75 percent or less of full parks capacity. The WDNR’s website lists COVID-19 guidelines and open parks.

Catch up with the rest of Great Lakes Now’s coronavirus coverage:

Fishing and Freighters: Great Lakes industries take COVID-19 economic hit

Environmental Justice During COVID-19: Communities bear extra burden

Locked down along with NYC, upstate areas prepare to reopen

Minnesotans urged to fish close to home to slow COVID-19

Featured image: East Harbor State Park, home to Ohio’s largest state campground, remains closed to overnight visitors. (Photo by James Proffitt)


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