Social distancing is easier outside.
This simple maxim drove Americans out into the open to a great extent last year. The use of local, state, and national parks increased significantly in 2020 as people searched for recreational and fitness activities that weren’t excluded by COVID-19 rules, which limited indoor entertainment and exercise options where the can Coronavirus spread more easily.
The influx certainly created hurdles for some parks that struggled to meet the increased demand while budgets and staff were cut. But it also opened up growth opportunities for companies meeting the demand for outdoor gear, and it proved beneficial for park staff, who often feel underestimated in budget time.
As the second spring of the pandemic begins a year after Michigan’s first infections and vaccines offer a way back to normal life, park officials hope those who took refuge in the great outdoors keep coming back to learn more .
“The torch we’ve been carrying for years is that parks are an integral part of every community, and that only highlights how important they are,” said Clay Summers, director of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association. “Where did people go when there was a pandemic? They went outside into public space. They went to parks. “
“It created opportunity,” said Summers. “Something good comes out of that.”
Summers, whose organization represents park departments across the state, said usage increased between 50 and 150 percent across the board over the past year, while funding was also cut in some of those departments.
Last year’s battle for parks wasn’t just limited to logistics and budgeting, however. The potential for outdoor risk is better understood now than it was a year ago when, when the first COVID cases were confirmed in Michigan and home stay orders went into effect, parks locked gates and caution tapes were placed in playgrounds.
However, the facilities reopened as health guidelines evolved and quarantine regulations were relaxed. While it can be transmitted outdoors, research shows that the virus does not spread easily through contaminated surfaces, but rather through respiratory droplets in the air. Outside, these easily disperse in the breeze, greatly reducing the chances of others being exposed to an infectious dose.
Now experts are urging people to go outside.
“We want to make sure that people engage in outdoor activities whenever possible,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the Epidemiology and Population Health Bureau for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, at a March 17 press conference.
Retailers say people take this to heart.
“There are a lot of people who still don’t feel comfortable after they hit the gym and decided to go outside and try a new activity or area in town,” said Chris Spyke, assistant store manager at Gazelle Sports in Kentwood.
“People do a lot more research.”
Like many outdoor gear retailers, Spyke said Gazelle, a Michigan-based company, experienced a boom in online sales last year when stores were temporarily closed. Much of these purchases were made by new customers looking for equipment and information about things to do near their home.
Encapsulated customers coupled with manufacturing restrictions resulted in nationwide supply shortages of items such as bicycles, kayaks and camping gear over the past year. Boats and RVs were also sold in record numbers. At Gazelle, online sales “pretty much doubled” compared to the previous year, said Spyke. Most of it came from people who bought shoes and clothes.
“It was astronomical,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a list of local trails to try,” Spyke said. “These are places that have always been around that people just haven’t heard of – and the summer traffic in these parks was wild.”
Michigan state park usage increased more than 25 percent, reaching a total of 35 million visitors last year, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Sales of hunting and fishing licenses also increased. According to DNR, online license sales increased 127 percent from 2019, and a sizable percentage (about 20 percent) of retail customers were between 17 and 24 years old. Revenue from vehicle stickers for the recreational pass, which provides access to state parks and recreational areas, rose 15 percent percent through January. All-terrain vehicle (ORV) licenses are up 61 percent, and snowmobile permits are up 11 percent through February.
Record number of visits were seen in Michigan national parks.
More than 1.2 million people visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 2020, an increase of around 41 percent from the previous record of 2019. More than 1.7 million people visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last year and nearly 310,000 people visited the River Raisin National Battlefield near Monroe, a 40 percent increase from 2019.
The numbers also show more day trips compared to overnight stays. According to the National Park Service, almost 150,000 more people visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2020 compared to 2019, although tent and RV camping fell and total visiting hours fell.
Unfortunately, trash and anger also increased in parks. Litter was a bigger problem as more people were out and beach cleaning days were canceled or delayed in many cases.
Pictured Rocks staff said they were having issues with facility maintenance and traffic jams at the trailhead. “Our facilities just weren’t designed for a million people,” Ron Jones, one of four park administrators, told Bridge Michigan.
State parks also struggled with the boom – especially after the campsites reopened in June.
“We tried to get people to ‘sign in’ or ‘leave no trace’, but that didn’t work very well,” said Ron Olson, director of DNR Parks and Recreation. “We were kind of overwhelmed because we were dealing with minimal staff.”
The DNR eventually closed some parks due to a lack of parking, such as Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park and Belle Isle, which “had to close for a period of time almost every weekend on Saturday late afternoon.” Said Olson.
Others closed when visitors couldn’t meet social distancing requirements, such as the Tippy Dam Recreation Area near Manistee, which closed for about a month last spring. Overcrowding concerns have also led to boat dock closings in some places. An early boating restriction was lifted in late April after conservation activists sued the governor.
Much of the surge in park visits came from new users, Olson said. There were many inexperienced people hiking, camping, and backpacking. The rescue operations in the hinterland in the Porcupine Mountains were “more than any employee can remember” last year.
“Anywhere you could go out and do something was very busy,” said Olson. “We believe this trend will continue.”
One indicator, he said, is state park camping reservations for 2021. These are also 30 percent higher than the previous registration season that began before the pandemic broke out last year. “Sure, there are people who make plans early,” he said.
Brad Garmon, director of the DNR’s state office for outdoor recreation, said the surge in outdoor recreation caused by the pandemic offers additional opportunities for areas around Michigan that are already experiencing high levels of tourism.
Tourism-dependent communities should consider investing in recreational infrastructure such as hiking and biking trails “so that they can focus more on recreational activities than just tourism,” said Garmon. “There is an opportunity to include this part not only in a tourism plan but also in a diversification plan – a great place to live and visit.”
Summers said parking systems should take concerted steps to benefit from the increase in outdoor recreation, starting with updates to master planning documents aimed at acclimatizing new park users.
Parks should try to engage visitors through marketing and programming like hiking, biking, and nature clubs – “whatever they wanted,” he said. There are also economic development opportunities to partner with companies that make equipment such as bicycles, shoes, kayaks, and other equipment that is used in the parks.
“This has created a unique opportunity for us to speak at that level,” he said.
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