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‘When Everyone Locked Their Doors, We Opened Our Gates’: The Maryland Park Service Answers the Call During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo of ranger wearing mask collecting park entrance fees

Ranger Erik Ledbetter collects entrance fees at Seneca Creek State Park

We often hear we are living in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 global pandemic has changed the way we live our lives and do our jobs. For the many park rangers, maintenance staff, and administrative staff who manage and operate state parks in Maryland, it created a new challenge to our mission of providing access for Marylanders to our state’s natural spaces.

Back in late winter, everyone was watching the numbers rise as the media reported the latest figures on the growing pandemic. Then on March 5, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a State of Emergency. A week later all state buildings were closed to the public, along with other public gathering places, to slow the spread of the virus.

As March progressed, we saw a rapid shutdown of services, facilities, and businesses, until Governor Hogan issued a “stay-at-home” order, effective on March 30, directing people to stay in their homes unless leaving was absolutely necessary. During this time, the governor and his team of health officials continued to recommend that people get outside for fresh air and exercise.

Despite our own fears and uncertainties during this pandemic, we all knew that parks and outdoor areas would continue to play a critical role in serving the health and well-being of Maryland’s communities. Like many park agencies across the country, Maryland Park Service employees made a commitment to keep the parks open and available throughout the entire course of the pandemic, offering people a safe place to seek the benefits of nature and healthy outdoor activity.

Ranger with entrance sign

Point Lookout opens for another busy day

Ranger Rachel Temby, park manager at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, described it best: “When everyone locked their doors, we opened our gates.”

However, operating state parks during a global pandemic was no simple endeavor. New protocols and procedures were needed to keep our essential employees and visitors safe and minimize risk of exposure to the virus. Under the leadership of Superintendent Nita Settina, the Maryland Park Service developed a detailed response plan that has served as the primary set of operating procedures for staff to work safely and interpret the many evolving guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maryland Department of Health, and the Governor’s Office. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, state park staff used a “self-serve” approach in order to limit visitor-staff contact while providing access to nature and outdoor recreation. Few restrooms remained open, replaced with an ample supply of portable toilets placed throughout parks. Honor systems remained in place for entrance fee collection. Campgrounds and beaches were closed, as were picnic shelters, park offices, and visitor centers.

Photo of ranger with "masks required" poster

Ranger Christina Holden posts a health precaution poster at Pocomoke River State Park

As the weather warmed and Memorial Day approached, our parks began to experience an unanticipated phenomenon. People started flocking to their local state parks in far greater numbers than ever before. Not only did our park staff see our regular visitors, but we began to notice many first-time visitors in all of our parks. Seeing new people experiencing the wonders and benefits of their state parks let us know that we were indeed an essential service. Visitation in the first six months of the year increased 44% over the same period in 2019. Parks filled to capacity 248 times through Labor Day 2020 versus 86 times in all of 2019. The overwhelming increase in visitation has presented significant challenges.

While visitation continued to set new records, we remained cognizant of the potential spread of the virus, working closely with state and local health officials to adopt appropriate operational procedures. Park staff developed new means of collecting fees to ensure staff and visitor safety. Modifications were necessary for our contact stations, including the installation of acrylic barriers and personal protective equipment for our staff. Signs and posters were placed throughout the parks to encourage everyone to practice social distancing, wear masks, and limit gatherings. Special events and public programs were cancelled, with many park rangers adopting creative ways to educate and inspire a stewardship ethic through a series of Virtual Ranger videos posted on the Department of Natural Resources social media outlets. A new “Create Your Own State Park” challenge was launched to provide families who were staying safe at home with activities to enhance their own yards as a natural oasis.

Photo of ranger sweeping cabin with mask on

Cabins are meticulously cleaned between guests at New Germany State Park

Eventually, the virus infection rates slowed enough for Governor Hogan to launch Maryland’s Roadmap to Recovery. Part of this gradual lifting of restrictions brought about the reopening of certain park amenities such as swimming beaches, campgrounds, cabins, and shelters. The opening of these amenities called for park staff to develop additional protocols, including enhanced emergency first responder procedures and a COVID-19 specific cleaning regimen for cabins and bathhouses. Managing these additional responsibilities also resulted in a rush to hire hundreds of new seasonal employees, including lifeguards, seasonal rangers, and maintenance staff, who had not been brought on yet due to the previous shutdown of facilities.

In the weeks between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Maryland State Park staff led the rapid reopening of nearly all facilities to the point that, by the Independence Day holiday, we were operating at nearly full capacity–while still experiencing record-setting visitation. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, Maryland state parks have already surpassed the full year visitation record set in 2019, exceeding 15 million park visits through Labor Day 2020.

Park professionals must continue to answer the call as essential employees, since keeping parks open is not something that can be accomplished remotely.

The ongoing pandemic continues to require park professionals to dedicate themselves to serving the community and fulfilling their mission to manage the natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources to provide for wise stewardship and enjoyment by Maryland residents and visitors alike. Park workers everywhere hope that people continue to cherish their natural open spaces and seek the safety of the outdoors during this global pandemic. We will be there for you—with our gates open.

Ranger Steve McCoy is the Central Region manager for the Maryland Park Service. Article appears in Vol. 23, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2020.