Originally published Aug. 24 in TheStatehouseFile.com
As businesses and activities slowed or even stopped at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indiana’s state parks saw a surge in visitors that is lasting through the summer.
“It’s been really busy,” Brown County State Parks Interpretive Naturalist Patrick Haulter said. “And it’s interesting because it’s in different times than we’re used to.”
Many Hoosiers are skipping traditional summer vacations in favor of safer, closer-to-home activities, like visits to state and local parks, as the number of cases of the highly contagious coronavirus continues to spread.
Though the total number of visitors to state parks hasn’t been tallied for the year, officials have seen campsites fill up and have had to regulate the number of people entering some of the parks, said Ginger Murphy, deputy director of Division of State Parks.
In a typical year, Murphy said, the 7,700 campsites are full on only three weekends—Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor.
“We have had virtually every campsite taken on all of our properties for the eight or nine weeks between Memorial Day, and the latter part of July,” Murphy said.
Throughout the pandemic, which began with a statewide shutdown of schools and all but the most essential businesses, state parks remained open, offering people a place to get out of the house and go explore that they may not have had the luxury of exploring before.
Murphy said that hiking is the number one activity in the state parks currently, with camping at a close second.
“We welcome everyone to our parks,” Murphy said. “They are for everyone who lives in Indiana and everyone who comes to Indiana to visit.”
Parks officials are also helping keep employees and visitors safe by following the Indiana stay on track plan.
This plan requires guests and employees to wear a mask at all times when indoor and when social distancing isn’t possible, closing pools, cave tours and drinking fountains.
Haulter said he has enjoyed being able to watch seasonal and long-term employees embrace the changes taking place at the parks and finding creative ways to do things while following the state’s guidelines for masking and social distancing.
“If you are visiting a nature center, coming to the park office, if you were in one of our inns or in restaurants unless you’re eating, of course, if you are in one of our shower houses or restrooms, you are required to wear a mask,” Murphy said.
One thing that has currently changed within the parks is the amount and kinds of activities that they offer, Haulter said. They have been offering more outdoor programs and programs that still offer a unique lesson due to not being able to touch things.
“A lot of programs where you can’t touch things,” Haulter said. “You kind of take away the sense of touch so now we have to come up with another way to engage people. The sense of touch is such a useful tool for teaching events because once you touch something that’s a totally different feeling.”
The state parks are not receiving additional funding because of the impact of COVID-19 and an increase in visitors.
Tabby Fitzgerald is a reporter with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.