Kiyomi Locker, feeling cooped up, took a drive Saturday afternoon to the newly reopened Batsto in New Jersey’s Wharton State Forest, but what she found was “unsettling”: Lines of cars, and many people out without wearing masks and not practicing social distancing — the same behaviors that forced the state to shut down the parks in April to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“I didn’t even get out of the car, because it was just unsafe,” said Locker, who lives in Ocean County and posted a video on a Facebook group about the experience.
“I entirely understand that everyone is fatigued from quarantine. I am as well,” said Locker, who works for the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, which supports historic Whitesbog Village, which is still closed, except for trails, because of the coronavirus. “I would love to be able to go back to work at Whitesbog, but if situations like that continue, it won’t be for a long while.”
Overall, it wasn’t just Locker who worried about the overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, though official reaction was largely positive about how people handled themselves in parks after Gov. Phil Murphy announced they could reopen Saturday.
“Remember, COVID-19 is not gone,” officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry wrote in an email blast on Sunday, saying multiple locations were “overrun”: Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, Bulls Island Recreation Area, Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, Hacklebarney State Park, Round Valley Recreation Area, Wharton State Forest, Wawayanda State Park, and Worthington State Forest.
It posted a video on how to social distance at parks and sent messages on social media cautioning park goers that picnics are forbidden, visits should be kept to two hours, visitors should wear masks when near others and should not park along roads, all of which Locker said she saw being violated. Others on social media noted the issues cropping up, while some said they saw no problems.
The issues were similar at the Shore. At Corson’s Inlet, a state beach at the southern end of Ocean City, officials said they would no longer allow beachgoers, only boat-launchers. A state parks employee guarded the entrance because too many people crowded into the parking lot Saturday.
Murphy closed all state and county parks April 7 amid the coronavirus outbreak because too many people failed to practice social distancing outdoors.
Still, there were reports of parks where crowding was not an issue and people seemed to be complying with guidelines.
During a briefing Monday, and despite the DEP’s email, Murphy portrayed the opening of the parks as largely successful and said the overwhelming majority of park-goers took precautions, with few incidents of “knucklehead behavior” that would require him to reverse course and close the parks again.
“I know many of our parks filled up early in the day, and I don’t blame you one bit for wanting to get out,” said Murphy, who went for a run with his wife, Tammy, at a park, which he called “generally a very, very positive experience.”
But he said a number of people were not wearing masks. Social distancing is the best known way to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, he said, but “I would add face masks to that.”
The New Jersey Sierra Club lauded the opening, calling it “a wonderful weekend and a great success for people to enjoy New Jersey’s parks. People and their families were enjoying nature.”
The organization noted that most parks had reached their capacities by 10 a.m.
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, said that the pandemic has helped many people more fully understand the importance of the outdoors, and that there is now a need for more funding to expand open space and fix existing facilities.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, along with state police, said “there were no significant enforcement issues, and the reopening of recreational areas came off largely without incident.”
Some parks were forced to close, Grewal reported, after quickly reaching capacity. And officials said people had to be reminded that picnicking, team sports, and use of playgrounds within the parks are all prohibited under the emergency orders, to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.
The agencies said “the vast majority” of people were compliant once they were told what was permissible.