Social distancing rules and reduced park hours aren’t keeping away thousands of Wisconsinites looking to spend time outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Parks across the state reopened last week, allowing visitors to enjoy Wisconsin’s best natural areas, as long as they’ve purchased a 2020 parks pass.
About 40,000 yearly passes have been sold so far, generating about $800,000 in revenue, though a portion of that will be donated to the Friends of the Wisconsin State Parks, said Missy Vanlanduyt, the recreation partnerships section chief at the DNR.
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Parks that were closed in April after “unprecedented crowds, litter, vandalism and out of an abundance of caution to protect public health and safety” reopened Friday. Visitors have been flocking back under limited hours of 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The parks are closed on Wednesdays for maintenance.
Ryder Will, the superintendent of Mirror Lake State Park in Baraboo, said the closures have allowed his staff to begin preparing the parks for the busier summer months, like deep-cleaning restrooms and showers, mowing and making sure the grounds are cleared and accessible.
Before the closure, parks were facing influxes of people much higher than normal for the spring, which meant that there weren’t enough staff members to keep up with the attendance numbers.
“We don’t start staffing up until early to mid-May and so part of the problem a lot of places ran into, from a staffing level, we weren’t prepared for what is essentially summer-level use in April,” he said.
Now, parks have started to hire staff to prepare for the warmer months ahead.
The public is encountering some bumps in the operation when it comes to park passes. There are no daily passes and visitors are required to have a 2020 pass to access a park. The yearly pass must be purchased over the phone, at (888) 305-0398.
Some visitors, though they’ve purchased a sticker, haven’t gotten them in the mail yet. In those cases, visitors have been waved into the park after showing a receipt for the purchase.
Staff from parks across the state have been tapped to help take phone calls. At the Mirror Lake park office, $3,000 worth of passes have already been sold to callers, Will said. The stickers are $28 for vehicles with Wisconsin license plates, $38 for out-of-state plates.
For those not able to get through by phone, passes are available for purchase online at fwsp.org, but those purchases include an extra $10 donation ($20 for out-of-state plates) to the Friends of the Wisconsin State Parks organization.
Don’t forget social distancing
Social distancing has been a focus of park workers, Will said. Wardens and other park staff have been maintaining distance from visitors and have been on the lookout for groups that appear not to live in the same household.
At Mirror Lake, there haven’t been many issues, Will said, and he has seen some creative measures to follow the rules. Before the closures, he saw a group of young people in the park with their cars parked in the lot about 15 to 20 feet from each other, with the drivers sitting on the trunks, socializing at a safe distance.
“That was good to see people understanding it and still coming out and using the park and social distancing,” he said.
Vanlanduyt said no parks have yet to reach capacity, causing lines to get in. But, she said, there are still things that parkgoers need to keep in mind — like the fact that bathrooms and shelters are closed.
Picnic areas and trails are open, though, along with the beaches at parks that have them, Will said. And he’s glad to see people taking advantage of those parts of the park and enjoying nature, either by themselves or with their housemates.
He’s glad to see people coming out to the parks who haven’t been to them before, he said, enjoying what the state has to offer.
“I guess if there’s a silver lining in it, it probably is maybe something that there are people that it had never occurred to them to come to parks before, or maybe haven’t been for since they were a kid,” he said. “And now maybe they’re bringing their families out to find an activity that they can do and feel comfortable doing it. I think it’s a good thing.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.
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