Summer at state parks in the time of COVID: Less parking, no volleyball, but probably lifeguards

Hikers enjoy a trail at Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown where social distancing is encouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Cloe Poisson, CTMirror.org)

As the temperature ticked up and up over the sunny first weekend in May, so did the number of posts on the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Twitter feed @CTStateParks:

9:43 a.m. – “Southford Falls State Park, Southbury, CT is closed due to parking lot full to capacity.”

“Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden, CT is closed due to parking lot full to capacity.”

Bluff Point, Talcott Mountain, Penwood, Sherwood Island, Hammonasset Beach, Silver Sands, Rocky Neck. Closed, closed, closed. Twelve on Saturday, 17 on Sunday.

This is life during COVID-19 if you want to use any of the 110 state-owned parks, 32 state forests and the trails or water bodies on them, or the 117 boat launches. Restrictions in place to prevent overcrowding and promote social distancing mean limited parking, no walk-ins, no picnics, no concessions, no bathrooms, no equipment — all of which has been no deterrent.

Park and trail usage is way up for this time of year.

But as Memorial Day approaches, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is trying to figure out what’s next – especially for the four popular shoreline beach parks that host crushes of beach-goers in a normal summer. They are already experiencing closures under the new capacity limits. Also of concern are the state’s 15 campgrounds, which remain closed – the initial closure now extended to June 11.

For DEEP, the pandemic means weighing all kinds of variables the department -– and pretty much no one else –- has ever really had to consider before when it comes to providing outdoor recreation.

“Through this process it was clear from the beginning that we needed to make a lot of changes to business as usual,” said Katie Dykes, DEEP’s commissioner. “There were many different aspects of park operations that we needed to adjust.”

Those adjustments began on March 13 as COVID-19 barreled into Connecticut. DEEP closed the indoor spaces at its parks and forests – visitor centers, educational facilities and more. But the goal was always to keep the outdoor spaces open as physical and mental respites.

The Connecticut Trail Census showed a huge increase in trail use from March 2019 to March 2020 in the wake of the state’s COVID shutdown. (CT Trail Census/UCONN)

Mostly that’s worked. Kent Falls and Seaside State Parks along with boardwalks at Silver Sands and Hammonasset Beach State Parks were closed when it became apparent social distancing was not possible. Groups were limited to five family members; parking was limited; walk-ins would not be allowed. And it all came with a big reminder that violations carry hefty financial penalties and the risk of criminal felony charges.

Now DEEP is trying to figure out how to operate the beaches this summer and what protocols are needed to open campgrounds.

Among the systems they’ve never really had to question, they’re now thinking about lifeguards – whether there can be two-to-a-stand as they often are. How to handle a water rescues during which social distancing is obviously impossible. How to handle injury or illness? What cleaning procedures will be needed for equipment used by more than one person? How to handle maintenance when more than one person is needed? How to transport workers and staff other than in groups, which is normal procedure? How to safely remove trash? What kinds of personal protective equipment will be needed and how to actually get it?

“How do you operate a public restroom with stalls and showers in way that’s compatible with public health guidelines?” Dykes asked, indicating that’s a big one they haven’t figured out yet.  “That’s key to the operation of a campground and other facilities.”

Mike Lambert, DEEP’s chief of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, noted that campgrounds by their nature are places where the public congregates. One of his staff members estimated there would be potential for 250 public interactions for employees just when people are checking in, never mind in bathhouses and other communal locations.

“It’s those type of considerations that we’re trying to work through and that’s been part of the reason for delaying the opening of campgrounds,” Lambert said. “We’re exploring all the options we can.”

The campground reservation system stopped taking reservations in March. Reservations made before the shutdown covering dates prior to June 11 will be fully refunded. That includes the normally lucrative Memorial Day weekend, which will put a dent in camping revenues. In the 2019 camping season, state facilities had about 21,000 reservations, accounting for 75,000 camping nights and $2 million in revenue.


The beach towns

While the state parks and forests are free to state residents, the towns they are in have generally benefited economically from them – and none more so than the four shoreline towns with beach parks: Madison from Hammonasset, Milford from Silver Sands, Westport from Sherwood Island and East Lyme from Rocky Neck.

The DEEP advisory on the use of Silver Sands State Park.

But there’s careful choreography already underway in those towns because each also has town beaches in addition to certain responsibilities with respect to the state ones. Dykes got an earful about some of the towns’ new concerns during a conference call with many shoreline and other municipalities last Friday.

Some of it came from East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson, who was surprised to learn a no-walk-in policy had been in effect for the state parks. He said there are four points of entry to Rocky Neck other than the main beach entrance. People often park on side streets and even in other people’s driveways to use them. The state, not East Lyme, should be policing them, Nickerson said.

“We don’t have the cops to do that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s our responsibility to stop them. They should be paying people to stop people from walking in.”

He also pointed out that the town already has to deal with the state beach traffic which at times has backed up onto the state and federal highways. And he still hasn’t figured out how to handle the people who are turned away and may head for one of the three town beaches. He’s considering restricting them only to residents with a sticker.

He’s also still figuring out whether it will be safe to hire the student lifeguards and gate attendants the town normally employs during the summer.

“There’s no playbook or owner’s manual on this one,” he said. “I hope they give us detailed, very specific guidance – not maybes and possibilities. A lot of detail – well thought out.”

Madison, home to the most popular and largest shoreline beach – Hammonasset – is long accustomed to massive crowds that back up traffic onto I-95 and send beachgoers, many of whom often drive there from far-flung parts of the state, into local neighborhoods to park when the huge beach lots are full. And they often are.

A crowded day at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison a few summers ago – before the coronavirus rules on social distancing. (DEEP)

First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons would like to see more pro-active communication from DEEP on beach parking and crowds such as some kind of an online warning system that beaches are likely to close by a certain hour – not just the announcement that they are closed.

“I understand people are frustrated. They’re on the road for 45 minutes and they get here and the beach is closed,” she said. “It used to be they could go to the outlet mall, go to a restaurant and sit down.”

To keep turned-away beachgoers from over-running the town’s three beaches, their parking lots will be residents-only on weekends and holidays. Lyons also said it might be next to impossible to monitor people using the Shoreline Greenway Trail to enter Hammonasset without going through the main gate.

As of now, she is planning to have full staffing at town beaches, but will wait until after Memorial Day to make decisions on whether to even allow beach chairs – something California beaches are not permitting.

“Nothing is on autopilot right now – everything has to be looked at in a different way  and be micromanaged – even the tiniest little decision,” she said. “Who would have thought should we have a beach chair out on the beach or an umbrella?”

In Milford, Mayor Ben Blake doesn’t want to shut the town’s two most heavily-used beaches, one of which, Walnut Beach, has direct access to the state beach, Silver Sands. Not only is he watching out for spillover from the crowd limitations on the state beach, but he’s also got his eye on his neighbors, Fairfield and Westport, which are limiting their town beaches to residents.

“We could not be the only municipality to allow other folks on the beach,” he said. “It would get way too congested.”

So, he issued an emergency order that did the same. “My position is open space and parks and beaches do need to be left open,” he said.

But no volleyball games. “People are going to be doing a lot of single-handed sailing and solitary fishing and even swimming.”

In Westport, First Selectman Jim Marpe learned right from the first weekend of isolation in March — after the town developed the first COVID hotspot in the state — that he’d have to limit activity at the town’s popular Compo Beach. It was a beautiful weekend and the beach was packed.

Now it’s restricted to Westport and Weston people and in sync with neighboring communities and the state’s plans at Sherwood Island.

“I think there’s been an effort to coordinate,” he said. “We don’t want to do something at one beach and one thing at another. It should be as balanced as possible.”


Inland issues

Inland Connecticut parks and forests have seen the future — and it is crowded.

Data collected in March by the Connecticut Trail Census at the University of Connecticut at 13 sites along multi-use trails shows overall usage up by 77% over the same time last year. But more than half the trails in the study showed a greater than 100% increase, with the Hop River Trail in Bolton up by 216%.

Signs posted at Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown display guidelines for staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Cloe Poisson, CTMirror.org)

DEEP is still fine-tuning social distancing and other parameters in anticipation of even bigger crowds. No picnics, no gathering facilities, no bathrooms and minimal trash pickup – at least that’s the plan so far.

“Pack-in/pack-out has never been more important,” Commissioner Dykes said. “Leave no trace.”

She’s also pushing people to use lesser-known and less-crowded trails.

But how to handle trail maintenance is still proving tricky. Ask Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association who is having to rethink the group’s entire trail maintenance program – and that’s just five college students hired to do work for 11 weeks.

“It’s very tricky thinking through how do you keep the crew safe,” Hammerling said. “You have to do things very differently.”

No more using vans to take everyone to work sites. Now workers need their own cars. Instead of one shared cooler for food, each person will need one. On overnight camping portions it will be one person-per-tent, no more sharing. Workers may need to wear masks. And then there’s keeping tools clean.

“We’ve always had a cache of tools; if you used this tool and someone else used this tool – no big deal,” Hammerling said. “Now it is a big deal.”

It’s all serving as an object lesson for DEEP as it continues to navigate the onslaught of trail users, many of them new.

“How can we keep all these new users?” asked Bruce Donald, tri-state coordinator of East Coast Greenway and the legislatively appointed chairman of the Connecticut Greenways Council – DEEP’s legislative advisory committee. An increase in trail users who potentially will continue to enjoy them even after the pandemic  is “a silver lining,” he said.

But he said it’s going to take schooling them in trail etiquette as a part of social distancing –such as who gets out of the way for whom. He’s OK with limited parking, making some trails one-way, “yellow-taping” pavilions and other equipment.

“We need to be apart, wear a mask, follow CDC guidelines and just shut-up and do it,” he said. “Trails are eminently solvable. If it boils down to rolling closures of certain facilities at certain times, so be it.”


Putting the pieces together

There are a lot of moving parts to Connecticut’s outdoor recreation system, which includes managing more than 250,000 acres of public property. That’s more than 7% of the state. It brings in more than 10 million visitors a year and takes about 81 full-time state park employees and 500-550 seasonal workers to handle the job.

But so far only about 150 seasonals have been hired.

“It’s a slow ramp up compared to what we usually do this time of year,” said DEEP outdoor recreation chief Lambert. “Part of those efforts now are in helping manage the crowds that we’re seeing, which is unique for this time of year; assisting with gate closures and blocking off access.”

Maintenance also ramps up this time of year. But DEEP is still trying to figure out how to deploy resources. It could include closing inland swimming areas – especially the ones that have small beaches but tend to be crowded often with a disproportionate number of out-of-state visitors – and moving the personnel from them down to the shoreline parks.

How to handle out-of-state park visitors overall is still a work in progress. Yes, the state wants to encourage visitors and tourism, but it doesn’t want to displace locals. So a reservation management system and parking reservation system is under consideration to limit having to turn people away and to make payment more social distancing-friendly.

In a typical year DEEP runs 375 summer programs from May to August with approximately 25,000 participants. It includes No Child Left Inside, its signature and largest program. It’s likely many of those will end up running online, which is where many of the indoor and interpretive programs have been running since COVID-19 shut down all the indoor facilities. Since then, there have been some 86 programs attracting 1,930 participants. The Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset Facebook Live events have had over half-a-million participants averaging 8,000 viewers per episode.

Special events like weddings and other social gatherings at state park sites like Harkness in Waterford have been cancelled so far and are likely to remain that way. Such rentals and other usage fees generally bring in nearly half-a-million dollars.

But social distancing will still be the order of the day, whether it’s the most popular shoreline beach or the least known trail.

“The challenge is not really people following the rules so much,” said Dykes who has been checking out the parks herself and said most people are following them. “The challenge will be more and more people coming to the parks – and just those numbers means having to close many parks.”

As long as members of the public can accept those closures, aren’t trying to cheat their way in by walking and aren’t, in her words, “engaging in a lot of debate” with park officers, she feels this will be a successful strategy.

“The more parts of the system that remain open, the less concentration of visitors in any one particular location,” she said.

What’s keeping her up at night at this point is same thing as always: “the weather forecast,” she said.


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