Thirty-four closed Wisconsin state parks and recreational areas will reopen Friday, but their bathrooms will remain closed to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by limiting enclosed spaces where the disease could be more easily transmitted.
“We’re asking people to go to the restroom before they enter the park,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole said Tuesday
Gov. Tony Evers closed 38 parks and recreational areas on April 10 citing overcrowding that could hasten the spread of COVID-19, vandalism, mounting trash and dwindling cleaning supplies. Numerous changes being put in place will allow for a safe reopening of the parks, Evers said. Those changes include reducing park hours, temporarily closing some of the most popular parks if they become overcrowded and keeping the bathrooms closed.
Mark Aquino, state park manager for the DNR, said that maintaining a 6-foot distance in park bathrooms would be impossible.
“Prepare in advance for your visit and stay close to your community and visit the parks closest to your community,” he said.
Towers, shelters, playgrounds, nature centers, headquarters, contact stations and concessions buildings will also remain closed, as will campsites for the duration of Evers' stay-at-home order, which currently runs until May 26. That is the day after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, traditionally the kick off of the summer season, the busiest time of the year for most parks.
Enforcing social distancing in parks, particularly on narrow trails far from where any park ranger may be able to intervene, will largely be left up to visitors, Cole said. He said he was confident park visitors would act responsibly.
“Massive crowds create trauma for people who are afraid of this unseen enemy," he said.
Evers, a Democrat, has faced increasing pressure from Republicans and the state’s business community to loosen his stay-at-home order. The announcement of park openings came the day after Evers also allowed the reopening of nonessential businesses that can offer contact-less curbside drop-off and pick-up, such as dog groomers and small engine repair shops.
Annual park passes will now be required and won’t be for sale at the parks. The parks will open as usual at 6 a.m., but they will close four hours earlier, at 7 p.m. They will all be closed on Wednesdays for maintenance. Hunting and fishing will be allowed on all open properties in accordance with the legal season structure and hours, but access may be limited to walk-in or by water.
Boat launches are open at state properties and all trails are open, including those for ATVs. Evers' order on Monday allowed for the reopening of businesses that rent ATVs and other recreational equipment, including kayaks.
“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,” Evers said in a statement.
The closures included some of the state’s most popular hiking and camping destinations and were all in southern and southeastern Wisconsin, nearest to the state's biggest cities, Madison and Milwaukee. Popular parks that will reopen include Devil’s Lake, Governor Dodge and Kettle Moraine.
The Gibraltar Rock, Pewit’s Nest, Parfrey’s Glen and Dells of The Wisconsin River natural areas will remain closed. Evers said that was for the health and safety of the public, staff and integrity of the property. Two state trails in the Madison area that Evers originally announced were closing never did because they are managed cooperatively with multiple partners and municipalities, the state Department of Natural Resources said.