August 14, 2020 Media

National Parks Traveler: Democrats Pressing Interior Secretary On Lack Of Covid-19 Precautions In Parks

House Democrats, concerned that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough, are pushing him to explain why the National Park Service is not uniform in enforcing social distancing and face mask guidelines.

Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Vice Chair Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, led a letter signed by six House Democrats seeking long overdue information from Bernhardt about the National Park Service’s failure to consistently enforce mask-wearing or social distancing standards as it reopens sites around the country amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The letter follows one Grijalva and 11 other Democratic members of the Natural Resources Committee sent Bernhardt on April 27 seeking information about how the Department of the Interior (DOI) would implement the then-recently introduced April 16 presidential Opening Up America Again guidelines.

It also comes as some individual parks are warning visitors that they should come prepared to don masks on some trails where it’s become impossible to properly social distance.

“On popular trails like the Highline, Avalanche, Trail of the Cedars, and St. Mary Falls, please be prepared to wear a mask. On such trails, it can be impossible to maintain distancing guidelines of at least 6 feet,” Glacier National Park’s staff tweeted out Wednesday.

On Thursday, the social media staff at Mount Rainier National Park pointed out in a tweet that while the park is huge, “most visitors want to see the same areas, creating crowds. Please be prepared to wear a mask in busy areas, especially while staying on trails to protect meadows. What does 6 ft look like? Use marmots for scale!”

s the House Democrats pointed out in their letter Thursday, Bernhardt ignored their April letter, “underscoring the administration’s chronic lack of interest in public or employee health. Thursday’s letter came less than a month after the New York Times reported that ongoing outbreaks are threatening the tourist season at often heavily trafficked national parks,” the Democrats said.

“The issue is especially acute in states like Florida, where Everglades National Park – which is now fully open to the public – typically attracts approximately 1 million visitors each year,” they noted. “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been widely criticized for confusing and badly implemented health directives, and the state has more than 550,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus with no end or reversal in sight.”

The letter was signed by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California, Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Illinois, and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California.

The lawmakers ask Bernhardt to document how DOI plans to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and to explain whether NPS plans to purchase and distribute personally protective equipment to employees, among other issues.

At the National Parks Conservation Association, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Kristen Brengel said the American public deserves answers to Interior’s approach to safeguarding park visitors from the virus.

“These are absolutely the questions that the American public deserves answers to, as the Department of Interior encourages people to visit parks amid the global pandemic this summer,” said Brengel. “Beyond narrow trails and crowded overlooks and boardwalks, parks are seeing record-setting visitation this summer as people get outside.

“The leadership at Interior isn’t being proactive enough to keep staff and visitors safe. Park staff are worried about their health and the safety of visitors, as Interior political appointees continue to push access while refusing to put in place mask policies, even indoors,” she said. “Congress should be holding Interior accountable and should work to ensure that effective, commonsense protocols are put in place to ensure the safety of park staff, visitors and surrounding communities.”