Cool for the spring: Pennsylvania park programs are open again

Hikers in Ridley State Park in Media, Pa.

Hikers in Ridley State Park in Media, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Outdoor programming is coming back to Pennsylvania parks. That’s good news.

As vaccination ramps up and shot eligibility schedules accelerate, it’s possible that a majority of Pennsylvanians could be vaccinated by summer. But until community transmission numbers decline, medical experts agree that it’s still wise to keep social gatherings outdoors, especially for groups with high-risk family members or children too young to be vaccinated yet.

State parks, which have remained mostly open throughout the duration of the pandemic, could be a key part of safety strategy for Pennsylvanians. Now, the state is streamlining that process.

Starting Sunday, April 4, outdoor and in-person park programs will resume, limited to 40 participants per program. Visitor center exhibit halls, interpretive areas, and theaters will open with a 75% capacity visitation allowance. The state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is also expanding overnight camping availability, opening campsites at an additional 17 state parks; large, DCNR-sponsored events remain canceled until further notice.

The state parks’ announcement comes during an outdoor recreation “boom” that many officials attribute to pandemic-related restrictions. In 2020, Pennsylvania state parks saw nearly 10 million more visitors than in 2019; attendance grew by 26.6% for a total of 46.9 million visitors, compared to 37 million the previous year. Camping, fishing, boating, and hiking trails and greenways all saw major increases in participation.

In the fall, 86% of 1,001 Pennsylvanians surveyed said that time spent in the state’s public green spaces has been essential to their mental and/or physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic. And that spike in interest is expected to hold strong through spring and into this summer.

“The unprecedented utilization of parks during the pandemic, defined by the Governor’s Office and DOH as an essential service, has required the Bureau of State Parks to meet the high public demands for healthful outdoor recreation during this public health emergency. Visitation and park-generated revenue continues to accrue at higher levels than ever before to meet the public’s outdoor recreation needs,” a DCNR document summarizing the year reads.

Bicyclists take advantage of the multi-use trail at Ridley State Park in Media, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania has 121 state parks and 20 forest districts. All are open year-round.

“If we have another hot, sunny summer, those parks and state forests with water access will again draw the crowds, and those offering boat rentals, paddleboards, etc., will likely see more business,” DCNR spokesperson Terry Brady told WHYY News.

Philadelphia’s park officials have noted a similar increase in outdoor activity.

“I would say that we’ve seen a dramatic increase of visitation across the entirety of our park system … at least a 50% increase, probably even more than that,” city Parks and Recreation stewardship manager Elisa Ruse Esposito told WHYY last week. “Not only are folks getting out more to their local neighborhood parks, playground, or rec center, but we’re also seeing the interest in exploring some more of our far-flung gems, really checking out the diversity of our park system.”

Last spring, the city temporarily limited access to play equipment, basketball courts, and restrooms as COVID-19 safety measures. This year, that’s all changed. New playgrounds in the city are open, as are outdoor courts and fields. Permits for picnics, as well as smaller community and household group events, were being reissued as of mid-March.

A picnic area at Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Park bathrooms will open for the season the week of April 12 — last year, they were closed completely due to COVID-19 — and other park concessions and activities are reopening this summer as well, with pandemic safety measures in place.

Both local and regional officials agree that park visitors should stay in single-household groups, avoid crowded parking lots and trailheads, stay masked and physically distanced when possible, and wash their hands regularly to reduce COVID-19 risk since the pandemic is far from over.

But even when it is over, Esposito said, she thinks interest in the city’s parks and green spaces will remain. She works with volunteers in the city parks system, and she says her team reports an increase in community engagement and a desire to “give back.”

“I think that a lot of people are hooked on parks: They want to get out there more, they want to check out more of these sites. I think a lot of people have taken on new pastimes, new hobbies that are outdoors,” she added. “And I think we’re just going to continue to see that grow.”

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