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Outdoors offer safer holiday option during pandemic

State parks prepared for July 4

With the Fourth of July less than a week away, an extra emphasis has been placed on outdoor activities in the age of COVID-19 because the open air as well as the ability to easily social distance.

As such, a number of state parks already have opened, while others plan to do so later this week — just in time for the holiday.

Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority in West Virginia, for example, said he understands the appeal when it comes to why families may seek out recreational getaways over the next couple months.

“This is a very good social-distancing type of vacation,” Lusk said. “It’s just you and your family on your ATV or UTV out there in the woods.”

OHIO

Most state parks and outdoor spaces remained open during shutdowns. While exploring Ohio, people are asked to maintain social distancing, stay close to home and gather with less than 10 people.

Park visitors are welcome to hike, fish, boat, swim and picnic. Some marinas in the state now are open, including ramps, fishing piers, archery ranges, dog parks and golf courses.

The only park that has remained closed is Hocking Hills State Park, including the campground, cabins, and Old Man’s Cave, which is planned to reopen for the Fourth of July.

Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager of Ohio State Parks and Watercraft, said the trails of the popular forest were very narrow and it would have been impossible to maintain social distancing while traveling them.

“We’ve redesigned the trails to become one-way trails, which we believe won’t just be safer for COVID-19, but we’re thinking long-term,” Hetzel-Evans said. “We think this may make our trail system in Hocking safer in general.”

She said state workers built new trails in Hocking Hills and replaced signs.

“Because of the ruggedness of the terrain — and it’s tough to get to those trails — much of that work had to be done by hand,” she said. “You certainly can’t take bulldozers into Hocking Hills because that would ruin the landscape that everyone wants to see. We had to do a lot of it the old-fashioned way — a lot of walking in, carrying in hand tools, digging posts. Our staff has been extremely busy but also really hard at work so we could get Hocking Hills open to the public.”

For all parks, limited parking is enforced. If a lot is full, visitors must move on to a different area or return at a later time. Camping at all state parks must be done by reservation.

Most parks have limited restrooms, and shower stations are open.

Hetzel-Evans said visitors are encouraged to call ahead and check with the park before you go if concerned. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources also is updating its website weekly with openings and closures.

NEW YORK

Business has been steady but different for Infinity Charters owner Frank Schoenacker. In prior years, he’s run fishing charters for visitors to Chautauqua County from California, Colorado, Indiana and Arizona.

“I’m not getting any of that. It’s all either Pennsylvania, Ohio or New York,” said Schoenacker, who operates two boats — one on Lake Erie and one on Chautauqua Lake.

People aren’t booking as far in advance either, but the lakes have plenty of activity, he said.

“People using their boats; it’s something they can do,” Schoenacker said.

With five lakes and trail networks for hiking, biking and horseback riding, the area has long been an outdoor recreation destination, said Megan Arnone, marketing and communications coordinator for the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau. That could be even more appealing as folks look for vacation activities that don’t involve air travel or gathering in large numbers indoors.

Peek’n Peak Resort in Clymer reopened about three weeks ago. Employees are meeting and exceeding requirements to keep things sanitized as visitors return to golf, zipline, swim and more, said Nick Scott Sr., president of Scott Enterprises, which owns the resort. Staff members are wearing masks and have removed tables to allow for proper social distancing in dining areas, among a host of other steps, he said.

The resort is offering deep discounts, Scott said, including a package deal with the company’s Splash Lagoon indoor water park resort. About half an hour away in Erie County, Pennsylvania, it opened Friday for the first time in more than three months.

“We’re trying to entice people to come back out,” Scott said. “We’re just kind of climbing out of that hole.”

WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia’s relatively low number of reported COVID-19 cases compared with other states could add to the allure of its outdoor attractions, said Mark Lewis, president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Lewis said he spoke to a Pennsylvania resident recently who was planning to visit the area for the July Fourth holiday weekend.

“One of the reasons he cited is they were looking at coming someplace that was less risky, had seen less impact from the virus,” he said.

North Bend State Park in Ritchie County has been drawing interest, Lewis said, thanks in part to West Virginia’s discount on lodging at its parks for in-state residents. The park is home to a 72-mile stretch of Rail Trail, as well as hiking trails, cabins, campgrounds and fishing opportunities.

MICHIGAN

Northern Michigan is home to many state parks, including many that border Lake Huron like P.H. Hoeft / Thompson’s Harbor State Parks, Presque Isle State Harbor, Rockport State Recreation Area and Negwegon State Park. Ocqueoc Falls, Norway Ridge and Chippewa Hills Pathway are all popular places for hiking and biking on the trails.

Hoeft State Park also offers camping and has been booked solid since opening on June 22, a spokesperson said on Thursday.

PENNSYLVANIA

In Williamsport residents have been getting out for a summer lunch program for the community’s children.

Kayla Drummond, recreation coordinator for Williamsport, said because of social-distancing guidelines and other restrictions, they weren’t able to open the typical summer day camps this year or the pool. Even so, the lunch program serves as a means to ensure children are offered a mid-day meal and they are able to get outside for a few hours each day.

“For them, a couple hours can make a big difference,” Drummond said. “Now we even have grandparents out here with the kids and moms and dads, too.”

The skate park, playgrounds and pavilions are open to the public, she said, and people have been using the parks to get exercise. She said about 80 percent of people in the parks are not wearing masks.

“The parks are being used regularly and people seem very comfortable using them,” she said.

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