The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been directed by Gov. Tony Evers to re-open several state parks on May 1. Of course, there are a few catches, given social distancing guidelines and limitations to park operations. The move comes on the heels of another Evers order relaxing some restrictions on businesses, which goes into effect today.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said in a press conference that re-opening the parks ties into an overall plan for the state to “bounce back” as time goes on.
“In every decision that the administration has made, we’ve put public health and safety first,” said Barnes. “That means that we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions in the last few weeks. But these decisions have helped us save lives, and I’m extremely grateful for the sacrifices that the people of Wisconsin have made to protect each other.”
Under the “Safer At Home” order, several state parks saw record numbers of visitors, including High Cliff, which saw 16,000 attendees during a single weekend. Excessive amounts of litter and vandalism were also reported at other parks, leading to the closure of 40 parks by the Evers administration on April 9. The closures served as a warning that if the social distancing violations and vandalism continued, then so would the closure of more state lands. Most of the parks were located in Wisconsin’s southeastern corner.
Now, just days after hundreds of people protested the Safer at Home order outside the Capitol, undeterred by police, some parks will reopen. Visitors will have to abide by several conditions, including having a required state park sticker, which can be purchased over the phone. Annual passes are not available for purchase at the individual state properties. Forests and parks will be open to the public from 6 am to 7 pm daily except on Wednesday, which is reserved for maintenance and upkeep. The northern forests, flowages, the lower Wisconsin River way and Wild Rivers will be open until 11 pm. Specifically, these properties include:
• Black River State Forest
• Brule River State Forest
• Chippewa Flowage
• Flambeau River State Forest
• Gov. Earl Peshtigo River State Forest
• Gov. Knowles State Forest
• Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
• Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest
• Pike Wild River
• Pine-Popple Wild River
• Turtle Flambeau Flowage
• Willow Flowage
Hunting and fishing are allowed with the proper permits, and boat launches will be open as well. ATV trails will be available, but not restrooms at state properties, including those which are currently open. Group camps, shelters and other campsites will remain closed at least until May 26.
Parks will be operating at a 75% capacity limit. If you show up to an at-capacity park, you won’t be able to enter until other visitors leave. Here’s a tip though, try coming during one of the periods when there aren’t generally many people, such as before 10 am or after 4 pm. Here’s a list of the parks which are likely to block visitors due to the predetermined capacity limits.
• Copper Falls
• Devils Lake
• Gov. Dodge
• Gov. Nelson
• Harrington Beach
• Hartman Creek
• High Cliff
• The Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine
• Lapham Peak
• Perrot, Rib Mountain
• Whitefish Dunes
• Willow River
The Gibraltar Rock, Pewit’s Nest, Parfrey’s Glen, and Dells of the Wisconsin River state natural areas will all remain closed.
“Outdoor recreation is important for both physical and mental health, and I know how important it is to Wisconsinites to get outside and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources and spring weather,” said Evers. “With a few adjustments, like closing one day a week for maintenance and reduced hours of operation, folks should be able to get outside and enjoy our parks safely and respectfully.”
Barnes agreed, “I’m glad that we are able to reopen these spaces with new safety guidelines, so that people can enjoy our state parks and forests while we continue to prioritize public safety.”
Under the state’s Badger Bounce Back plan, restrictions on businesses are also easing. Starting on April 29, businesses will be able to conduct curb-side drop-offs of goods. Dog groomers will be back in business with curb-side service. Businesses are also limited to one staff member per room, and customer must make payments over the phone. Additionally, to help ensure social distancing guidelines are followed, drop-offs and pick-ups must be scheduled ahead of time. Rental equipment like ATVs and golf carts will be allowed again, following the recent re-opening of golf courses.
Still, restrictive COVID-19 containment policies have stirred discontent. A growing number of Republican legislators, echoing the demands of anti-lockdown protesters, are calling for the state to re-open more quickly. A group of Republican senators led by Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), issued a list of 25 questions on Evers’ Safer At Home policies, which the governor answered.
Justifying the restrictions, Evers highlighted, among other things, a report co-authored by the Department of Health Services (DHS) and Johns Hopkins University. According to the modeling used in the report, Wisconsin could experience a three-fold increase in deaths and a six-fold jump in the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 without the Safer At Home order.
The administration intends to progressively open the state back up rather than just ending the order.
“We must understand that this is a process,” Barnes said. “There’s no switch that we can flip on a single date to reopen things. But, as we work our way there, we will turn the dial on these safety restrictions when it is safe and responsible to do so.”