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Recreational activities return as Fourth of July holiday approaches

With the Fourth of July less than a week away, there is an extra emphasis on outdoor activities in the age of COVID-19 due to the open air as well as the ability to easily social distance. As such, a number of state parks have already opened while others plan to do so later this week, just in time for the holiday.

Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority in West Virginia, said of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails last week that he understands the appeal when it comes to why families may seek out recreational getaways over the next couple months.

“This is a very good social-distancing type of vacation,” Lusk said. “It’s just you and your family on your ATV or UTV out there in the woods.”

West Virginia’s relatively low number of reported COVID-19 cases compared with other states could add to the allure of its outdoor attractions, said Mark Lewis, president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Lewis said he spoke to a Pennsylvania resident recently who was planning to visit the area for the July Fourth holiday weekend.

“One of the reasons he cited is they were looking at coming someplace that was less risky, had seen less impact from the virus,” he said.

North Bend State Park in Ritchie County has been drawing interest, Lewis said, thanks in part to West Virginia’s discount on lodging at its parks for in-state residents.

The park is home to a 72-mile stretch of Rail Trail, as well as hiking trails, cabins, campgrounds and fishing opportunities.

In the southern part of the state, the 700-plus miles of Hatfield-McCoy Trails reopened May 21, two months after closing down. So far, the response has been tremendous, with a 20 to 25 percent increase in ridership since the reopening, said Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority.

More than 60 businesses provide lodging for trail riders. So far, more people seem to be interested in cabins than hotel rooms, Lusk said.

Because indoor dining is still limited to 50 percent capacity, “there is not the traffic to the local restaurants that we normally see,” he said.

In Williamsport, Pa., residents have been getting out for a summer lunch program for the community’s children.

Kayla Drummond, recreation coordinator for Williamsport, said that because of social distancing guidelines and other restrictions, they weren’t able to open the typical summer day camps this year or the pool. Even so, the lunch program serves as a means to ensure children are offered a mid-day meal and they are able to get outside for a few hours each day.

“For them, a couple hours can make a big difference,” Drummond said. “Now we even have grandparents out here with the kids and moms and dads too.”

The skate park, playgrounds and pavilions are open to the public, she said, and people have been using the parks to get exercise. She said about 80 percent of people in the parks are not wearing masks.

“The parks are being used regularly and people seem very comfortable using them,” she said.

In the Buckeye State, most state parks and outdoor spaces remained open during shutdowns. While out exploring Ohio, people are asked to maintain social distancing, stay close to home and gather with less than 10 people.

Park visitors are welcome to hike, fish, boat, swim and picnic. Some marinas in the state are now open, including ramps, fishing piers, archery ranges, dog parks and golf courses.

The only park that has remained closed is Hocking Hills State Park, including the campground, cabins, and Old Man’s Cave, which is planned to reopen for the Fourth of July.

Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager of Ohio State Parks and Watercraft, said the trails of the popular forest were very narrow and it would have been impossible to maintain social distancing while traveling them.

“We’ve redesigned the trails to become one-way trails, which we believe won’t just be safer for COVID-19, but we’re thinking long-term,” Hetzel-Evans said. “We think this may make our trail system in Hocking safer in general.”

She said state workers built new trails in Hocking Hills and replaced signs.

“Because of the ruggedness of the terrain, and it’s tough to get to those trails, much of that work had to be done by hand,” she said. “You certainly can’t take bulldozers into Hocking Hills because that would ruin the landscape that everyone wants to see. We had to do a lot of it the old fashioned way, a lot of walking in, carrying in hand tools, digging posts. Our staff has been extremely busy but also really hard at work so we could get Hocking Hills open to the public.”

For all parks, limited parking is enforced. If a lot is full, visitors must move on to a different area or return at a later time. Camping at all state parks must be done by reservation.

At most parks, there are limited restrooms and shower stations are open.

Hetzel-Evans said visitors are encouraged to call ahead and check with the park before you go if there are concerns. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is also updating its website weekly with openings and closures.

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