INDEX — Gates to many public lands will close Thursday, with the state Department of Resources cutting off access to hiking and camping in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
City, county, state and some national parks are largely shutting down, too. National Forest land remains open — for now.
As of Wednesday, 2,580 people had tested positive for the coronavirus in Washington, with 132 deaths. In Snohomish County, there were 634 cases and 16 deaths. Many of those killed have been senior citizens, but younger and otherwise healthy people can get seriously ill from the virus, too.
Parking lots at popular recreation sites overflowed last weekend as locals flocked to the trails, prompting state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz to elevate a camping ban announced Monday to a full closure that begins Thursday.
With entertainment businesses closed and social gatherings banned, Puget Sound residents turned to the outdoors.
In the Reiter Foothills, 10,000 acres of wilderness in the Skykomish River valley known for ATV trails and offroading areas, parking backed up until cars lined steep cliffs.
At some popular spots, Franz said the crowds surpassed even peak holiday traffic.
Social media flooded with selfies of hikers in groups at trails like Wallace Falls.
“We can’t ignore the unfortunate reality of what we saw this weekend, which is we had people shoulder-to-shoulder and in large gatherings,” Franz said Tuesday. “That undercuts the sacrifices that Americans must make to flatten the curve and put an end to this. It undercuts the heroic efforts of our nurses and first responders who are on the front lines of this unrelenting pandemic.”
Everett closed the gates at its parks Tuesday. That includes restrooms, sports courts, ball fields, playgrounds, boat launches, skate parks, beaches and off-leash areas, until further notice. Walkers can still stroll through the open park so long as they follow social distancing guidelines, giving everyone a 6-foot personal space bubble.
The city cited Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order as the motivation for the move.
State parks’ closure begins Wednesday and continues through April 30, encompassing all 4,600 acres of state park land in Snohomish County. Entrance gates and facilities will be closed, and on-site public services will be suspended. Essential staff will still be onsite to protect park resources, according to the department.
Both the state and DNR closures include all trailheads, trails, roads, boat launch sites, campgrounds, day-use areas and dispersed recreation like off-trail hiking, camping, hunting and target shooting.
Enforcement officers will cite people caught on the DNR’s roughly 160,000 acres in Snohomish County, if they refuse to leave, Franz said.
Last week, DNR officials began considering a blanket ban, but the process was sped up by Inslee’s order Monday afternoon.
The department had already banned camping, a move some on social media called counterintuitive, since open space provides an opportunity for social distancing. The problem, Franz said, is that everyone had the same idea.
“We can’t do what grocery stores are doing where we draw the red line on the floors,” she said. “We don’t have the ability to enforce that on every inch of the land we manage, so unfortunately we have to take drastic measures like this.”
Most DNR trails are not six feet wide, she said.
Dispersed recreation poses an issue, Franz said, even if takes place in the middle of nowhere away from communal resources like restrooms, trails and water spigots.
The DNR doesn’t have the staff available to ensure people aren’t damaging public property, Franz said.
“Fires are a great example,” she said. “ … We don’t have the resources to police that.”
The public lands will remain off limits through at least April 8.
State Parks and Recreation echoed the DNR in its reasons for closure.
Spokesperson Anna Gill also highlighted exposure risks to some small towns like Index and Gold Bar that are frequent stops for folks on their way to the mountains and rivers.
Data shows most campground users travel significant distances before pitching a tent, Gill said.
“They’re more likely to be the ones going into the towns and accessing resources from those communities,” she said.
The U.S. National Park Service is also limiting access.
At Olympic National Park, most roads are closed at the entrance. All camping is suspended and public facilities like restrooms and visitor centers are closed. The closures will last at least through April 6, according to the park.
Environmental organization The Nature Conservancy has closed off all its land in the state, including a restoration site at Port Susan Bay near Stanwood.
As of last week, Snohomish County parks remained open, with certain areas off limits. Bathrooms and gated parking lots at parks will be restricted, but the open areas can be used for “responsible activities,” such as walking alone.
So far, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have plans to close trails or roads yet, according to forest supervisor Jamie Kingsbury. That means the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is still open.
If you have a yard, Franz recommends using this time to make your home more resilient to wildfire with the DNR’s online guide. Or start a garden. Taking neighborhood walks is still OK, as long as a social distancing is maintained.
“We are very much relying on people doing the right thing,” Franz said. “This is very similar to wartime where people were called on to do their part. … Each one of us has the ability to bend that curve and give our community a chance to get healthy again and our economy to not get hit so hard.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.