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Illegal parking, public defecation, overflowing trash cans: Crowds cause mess at parks during coronavirus pandemic

State and national parks had closed facilities like restrooms and visitors centers to steer visitors away. Still, crowds are coming at numbers far greater than typically seen.

Valley Forge National Park saw an increase in visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic, and many were not practicing social distancing.
Valley Forge National Park saw an increase in visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic, and many were not practicing social distancing.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Crowds are flocking to outdoor parks and trails for fresh air, the rare activity people are still permitted to enjoy amid the coronavirus. But these crowds are not social distancing, park employees say, prompting tough choices for state and national parks as the virus spreads.

Even amid stay-at-home orders, crowds have continued to arrive at numbers far greater than typically seen this time of year, employees said. What’s more, they are parking illegally, gathering en masse, stealing soap from restrooms, and leaving behind trash and waste — human waste.

Local, state, and national parks have shut down facilities and amenities, and some are closing trails and public access entirely, to fend off the visitors. Valley Forge National Historical Park closed last week because of the crowds, following the closure of Haverford College’s popular Nature Trail. Grand Canyon National Park also closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. They’re two of more than 100 Park Service sites to close.

At Valley Forge, before the closure, some visitors had even defecated in the park because the restrooms were closed, a spokesperson confirmed.

“Parking areas and trails will remain accessible as long as they do not create a threat to public health from COVID-19 or from something else 💩," the park wrote in a Facebook post before it closed entirely. "Please go BEFORE you arrive, follow park rules, practice social distancing, and wash your hands.”

National parks had faced the public-defecation problem during the months-long government shutdown that ended early last year, because park employees stopped working and bathrooms overflowed. Now it has become an issue because people refuse to stay inside.

“While we love all our visitors, we were seeing many times over the normal visitation for this time of year,” said Jonathan Meade, acting superintendent of Valley Forge Park. Visitors weren’t following social-distancing guidelines, and also were parking illegally, double parking, blocking gates, and stopping on the grass, he said.

“All of this created an unsafe situation that led the park to make the tough decision to close," Meade said.

On the state level, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday that all park amenities, including restrooms and campsites, will be closed through mid-May. Bathroom cleanliness also prompted those closures.

“Our staff has worked tirelessly to maintain the cleanliness of our restroom facilities, but hand sanitizer and soap has been stolen," said Natural Resources Secretary Shawn Garvin. "It has become more difficult to maintain not only the cleanliness, but the social distancing in the facilities. It is no longer safe for our staff or the public to continue this service.”

Pennsylvania’s state parks are still open to the public, but some may close if visitors do not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, said Terry Brady, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees state parks. New Jersey’s parks are also open, with amenities similarly closed.

She said some parks, which are facing staffing constraints due to the virus, are being stretched beyond their capacity, with a “crush of visitors.” She said she had not heard of human waste problems, but trash cans are overflowing.

Brady said the parks have increased signage and social media messaging for people to park in different lots and take their trash home. She also said that under the stay-at-home order, people should practice outdoor recreation closer to home rather than visiting state parks.

But those parks closer to home, for Philly residents, are also crowded. The city has no plans to close park access any time soon, said Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The city has made all recreation stations, like basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, and fitness stations off limits.

“Residents can anticipate some service reductions due to the current crisis and the stay-at-home order, but Philadelphia park maintenance continues,” Soukup said. “This includes trash pickup, landscaping, and turf management.”