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Reopening city and state parks and recreation will take time

John Thompson • Apr 26, 2020 at 11:51 AM

Friday was a significant milestone for many people who enjoy Tennessee state parks. April 24 marked a partial reopening of most of Tennessee’s 56 state parks that had been closed to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The opening was for day-use only.

Monica Johnson, the new manager of Roan Mountain State Park, said hikers are now permitted on the trails of the state park once again. She said other outdoor activities such as fishing are also permitted once again.

But Johnson said there remains many sections of the park that have not yet reopened. These include campgrounds, cabins, lodges, golf courses, restaurants, museums and theaters. Johnson said park employees have deep cleaned a lot of these facilities.

She said sanitation of the facilities is following the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control and a lot of the cleaning is being managed at the state level because of the unfamiliar chemicals involved. She said some of the cleaning of restrooms requires the restrooms to be closed to the public for an hour while the chemicals work.

The reopened parts of the park system, mostly outdoor activities, were the last part of the system to be closed to the public. While most of the park system had been closed earlier by state order, the trails and other outdoor activities had been kept open for people to use.

“We still had a lot of people using our trails,” said Phil Hylen, acting manager of Roan Mountain State Park, at the time of the complete closure.

So many people were using the trails that it was difficult to maintain social distancing, according to Chad Bogart, museum curator assistant at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The trails and other outdoor facilities were the last part of the state parks to close to the public.

With the trails remaining open, large numbers of people began using the remaining recreational facilities, causing crowds on the usually quiet backwoods trails. As a result, the outdoor facilities have been closed for most of April. 

The reopening is not a guarantee that the facilities will remain open. Johnson said the continued opening of the facilities is dependent on the behavior of the people using the trail. If social distancing is maintained and the users do not gather into crowds, the trails will be open. If not, Johnson said the parks have the authority to close the facilities until the problem is corrected.

While much of the park system remains closed, especially such high-profile parts as cabins, lodges and restaurants, pavilions and playgrounds, Kim Schofinski, deputy communications director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said “we continue to monitor the situation and will share information with the public about any additional reopenings as soon as details are available.”

While the state parks had some good news Friday about a partial reopening, the latest statement from the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department on Friday was highlighted by more closures and cancellations, including the cancellation of this year’s Independence Day Fireworks Celebration at Freedom Hall Civic Center and the announcement that the Legion Street Pool will not open this summer.

City Manager Pete Peterson said large crowds fare still not permitted and that makes planning uncertain.

“Planning for an event of that magnitude takes months and unfortunately there are too many unknowns to do so right now,” Peterson said. “Likewise, we are making some tough decisions regarding Parks and Recreation programming as well.”

Peterson said summer camps, events, and sports programs have been canceled and pavilion rentals are suspended until further notice.

Mike Mains, director of the Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Department, also spoke of the uncertainty that currently exists in making decisions that could impact seasonal or annual events and activities. 

“Like many other businesses, agencies and parks and recreation departments, we will be taking a phased approach toward reopening. Those that visit our facilities must still abide by all CDC guidelines and we will closely monitor what is taking place in our parks.”

Mains said he believed he will have a better picture this week “on where things stand in general with the reopening of our park system and facilities.” He said “we do know again that during the first phase we must still be extremely careful, and we must abide by the social distancing policies that have been recommended.”

Mains went on to say “this is not easy. Visitors to our parks and those that enjoy our trail systems and other park amenities will of course have an easier time enjoying the wonderful recreational facilities that we have than say those individuals that want to come out and enjoy our larger events such as Covered Bridge Jams, our Show on The Doe and other large-scale events that we do.

There are still restrictions on large events, and the fact is we don’t know right now how long those restrictions will continue, which then may call for these events to be postponed or cancelled.”

The Elizabethton Parks and Rec is similar to the state’s parks plan in getting the walking and bike trails back open.

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