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Responsible recreations: Area state parks implement changes amid pandemic, urge visitors to adhere to public health guidelines

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
Lake Murray State Park

The National Park Service has been implementing significant changes in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

In some cases, entire parks have been closed, but certain spaces, including Lake Murray State Park and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, have remained open as an outdoor respite for the public.

Most park buildings, facilities, restrooms and campgrounds are closed, limiting most activities to day use only — with the exception of RV camping at Lake Murray.

While engaging in physical activity on hikes can be beneficial to both physical and mental health, officials are urging individuals to adhere to CDC guidelines and social distancing policies in order to stay safe and keep the parks open.

“I think people should get outside, but we have to be careful encouraging too many or we wind up with crowds in groups larger than there is supposed to be. So we’re still adhering to the group policies and if we have overcrowding in areas then we have to reevaluate what we’re doing,” said Lake Murray park manager Richard Keithley.

According to the National Park Service, there has been a significant amount of congestion and overcrowding at national parks, making it increasingly difficult to adhere to CDC and local public health guidelines regarding social distancing.

Park visitors are urged to park only in designated areas, pack out lunches and everything brought into the park beforehand, plan a visit at times other than the busiest of the day, maintain the proper distance from other visitors, visit in small groups and with current household members, and if visitors encounter a crowded trail or overlook, seek another location.

Visitors should also pack hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes with them, avoid playgrounds, refrain from touching their face, keep six feet apart from all other people and stay home if they are experiencing symptoms.

As of April 3, the tent camping areas at Lake Murray State Park have been closed in an effort to reduce the risk of exposure by both guests and park employees due to a large amount of traffic and dependency on public restrooms.

“Before we implemented those practices we had some big crowds wanting to come in and so this kind of helped quite a bit,” Keithley said. “This weekend for example, we’ll be almost entirely full in the (RV) campgrounds. So if we had all of the tent campers here this is going to look like a holiday weekend.”

Lake Murray has continued to allow RV camping for the time being because RV campers have their own restroom facilities. The cabins at the park have also remained open in addition to hiking trails, boat ramps, golfing and swimming at the lake.

However, the riding stables, water sports, ATV riding trails, non-essential concessions and nature center have been closed until further notice. The Blue Heron restaurant at Lake Murray will be operating on a carry-out basis.

Convenience stores that carry grocery items and mobile food vendors are also considered essential and will remain open.

Following guidance from the CDC and recommendations from state and local public health officials in consultation with NPS Public Health Service Officers, and local and Chickasaw Nation leadership, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area announced on March 20 that all campgrounds and the Travertine Nature Center would be closed until further notice.

Later on April 6, the decision was made to close several additional areas with high traffic including East Perimeter Road, Veterans Lake Road, Travertine Creek, Little Niagara and Bear, Garfield and Panther Falls.

Trails in these areas are still accessible, however, the restrooms are closed. Catfish Bottoms, Blackjack Road, Eagle Bay and Buckhorn Buckbrush Road East have also been closed due to high water.

All other trails, boat launches, fishing docks and day use areas at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area are currently still open.

The National Park Service has been modifying operations on a park-by-park basis. Before planning a trip, individuals are advised to check with their individual parks to learn about the most up-to-date changes to park operations.

Several state parks also offer virtual tours and activities that can be done online. Online resources can be accessed at www.nps.gov.

Updates about the NPS response, including safety information, can be found at www.nps.gov/coronavirus.