By: Jessica Williams
National and State Parks are a tradition in American culture since 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone, and it was yet another thing that COVID altered. During COVID, 419 sites in the National Park System shut down visitor centers, and some shut down entirely. Once they reopened, there was a rush of people utilizing parks as an escape from COVID quarantine, but how did COVID regulations affect their visit, and how many people did it dissuade from visiting?
Many college students used the reduction of gas prices and free time during quarantine to take advantage of our country's national natural beauties but how did COVID alter their experience? When asked if she feared COVID during her visit to Mancos Colorado, Laiken McClure, a 20-year-old Ad-PR sophomore at West Texas A&M, stated, "I did fear it, only because you don't know where all of the other tourists have been before they came to the park as well."
Despite being fearful of other tourists, her trip was not much different from the dozen times she has been there before, "The only difference was that we wore masks when we knew we would be close to other people. We knew if there weren't going to be other people around our group, we wouldn't wear the mask. If going before COVID, we wouldn't have to even think about masks."
McClure enjoyed her trip despite the unfamiliar aspect of wearing a face mask. “It was a fun time getting to see all of the history.” said McClure, “It was nice that it was a nice day to be outside.” McClure did not let COVID take away from her want to experience the outdoors or her family’s tradition.
While COVID affected students as park visitors it also affects students as park workers. Sarah Fry, senior wildlife biology major at West Texas A&m, started working at Palo Duro Canyon State Park in June of this year and has seen effects in money and interpersonal connections. “We’re not making the same revenue this year as we have in the past, we’re having to turn visitors away, and we’re not getting to make the cultural and educational connections we make with our interpretive program.” said Fry. Regulations have had effects on funding because of capacity limits, mask requirements, and the complications of online registering. Simple interactions between workers and guests have been complicated, however like everything else they have adapted. “One of the biggest changes from being at the park Pre-COVID to where we are now with the virus, is having to wear a mask when interacting with visitors.” said Fry “It’s hard to show a welcoming face without smiling, but I’d say we’re learning how to smize just fine.”
Through the summer COVID did not stop outdoorsmen and campers from any age groups, “I’d say we have had a great mix of ages, but if I had to guess I would say I saw more people who were 50 plus and people who were retired, especially in the beginning. But our summer was busy with families camping and hiking and continues to be busy with WTAMU back in session.” said Fry. While working at Palo Duro Canyon during these exotic times Fry witnessed young, elders, and families bask in the park’s allure, without letting COVID deter from their indulgence.
Many people fluctuated through the parks, but most parks did not compare with numbers from previous years. The fear of COVID scared off even some of the most dedicated park visitors. Kara Craig, a 21-year-old West Texas A&M wildlife biology student, stated that before COVID, she visited parks up to two or three visits every two months. The abundance of crowds after reopening led her to stay clear, "When they started opening up again, I preferred to stay clear as there was an influx of people to those places, even if it was open air." Despite the continued efforts of parks cleaning and limiting guests there is still an unfriendly cloud that hovers because of COVID. Many families and students steered clear of parks just because the ideation of COVID’s germs.
There were also people who did not get to go to parks because of outside reasons but stated that they would have visited local parks if they had the chance. "I did not get to visit a state park during COVID due to my work schedule, but if I had the time I definitely would have gone." said Austin Vandagriff, 26-year-old West Texas A&M Strategic Communications major, "The Thought of COVID being at the Palo Duro Canyon honestly doesn't sound very possible to me due to the heat, as well as due to how open it is there. I would have felt safe and comfortable going there, and I wish I could have had the opportunity to do it this summer." Even though Vandagriff did not get to experience parks during COVID he was confident in the park’s ability and the safety of their regulations to keep COVID away.
COVID impacted revenue and park visitation but the bulk of visitors still experienced the sensational nature and culture provided by parks. So while regulations like visitor limits, closed campgrounds and just the thought of COVID kept the numbers of park goers down, the experience of the few that went was not reshaped by mask requirements or social distancing.