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COVID-19: Staff Members Concerned Nat'l. Parks Still Open

In addition to closed visitor centers, all interpretive programs at Badlands National Park are canceled amid the coronavirus. However, roads and trails are still open. (Adobe Stock)
In addition to closed visitor centers, all interpretive programs at Badlands National Park are canceled amid the coronavirus. However, roads and trails are still open. (Adobe Stock)
March 20, 2020

KEYSTONE, S.D. - The National Park Service has closed or restricted access at several sites, including in South Dakota, because of the coronavirus. However, a decision to waive entrance fees at some parks isn't sitting well with employees.

The Interior Department says the move will make it easier for visitors to enjoy open spaces while practicing social distancing. But Phil Francis - chairman of an advocacy group for current and retired Park Service workers - says large crowds could still congregate, affecting workers and visitors.

"Not only for visitors and park employees, but people who live in the communities, and people who are greeting and working with these visitors," says Francis.

The Park Service says it's following CDC guidelines about restricting social interaction, including closing visitor centers. It also says suspending the entrance fees will prevent close contact.

But Francis thinks unless a more comprehensive plan is adopted, parks should close.

In South Dakota, operations have been scaled back at a number of sites, including Badlands National Park. But roads and trails remain open.

Despite the open areas these parks provide, Francis points out that staff members interact with the public on a daily basis. He says his group has heard from many workers who are concerned about getting sick.

"This hasn't been thought through very well," says Francis. "Because we're actually creating maybe a bigger problem by allowing people inside the parks and encouraging them to come."

His group, the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, says closing down kiosks and information centers isn't enough. Francis notes there are still workers who clean restrooms and perform other tasks that put them at risk.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD