LANSING — The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is encouraging people to make use of Michigan’s state parks and waterways, as long as they do so respectfully of others in accordance with the governor’s stay at home order.
The DNR is keeping its parks open with very limited amenities due to growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19, with an exception of Tippy Dam in Manistee County.
The state agency has closed all dispersed camping and campgrounds, the DNR’s customer service stations and field offices, including its fish research station in Charlevoix.
“If you can stick your fishing rod out and do a 360 degree circle, that’s the minimum distance you would need to separate yourself from somebody else,” said Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreation for the DNR. “Just be smart about it and it’s not fair for people to ignore that.”
The base of Tippy Dam attracted many anglers both locally and from across the state. Visitors did not practice social distancing despite loudspeaker announcements made by the DNR.
“We were hearing from local officials who were very concerned about the congregation of people there, we were hearing from state lawmakers who had that concern,” said Ed Golder, public information officer with the DNR. “We closed it fairly quickly — within a day or two — of recognizing that there was congregation out there that was potentially a bad thing for public health.”
Because many of the DNR’s parks are a tourism draw, Olson said more closures could be considered.
Community officers and park rangers at boat launches are reminding people who aren’t practicing social distancing that it is a requirement. Olson said the DNR is documenting instances of a lack of social distancing with photographs.
Violations of the governor’s order are punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Golder said no citations had been issued up to this point by the DNR.
“We’re trying to warn people that you know, go to a close to home, recreational area, enjoy yourself, separate yourself, do your activity and don’t forget about social distancing because it is really the law — it’s not an advisory,” Olson said.
Olson said it’s not the local traffic to the DNR’s state parks that is creating concern.
Both community and state government officials have feared travel to escape urban areas where the virus may be spreading in the community. In response, the DNR is discouraging long-distance travel to its parks. Long distance travel also causes more points of contact at every element of travel — such as gas stations, convenience stores and lodging.
“This is continuing to become acute,” Olson said. “If the virus spreads to rural areas, they don’t have the capacity to handle the things that even the urban areas are challenged with … let’s not make outdoor recreation a vector for accelerating this problem.
“I think if people don’t travel and stay put, that’ll help ensure that this thing slows down and it flattens out like everybody’s seen by now.”
Because its bathrooms are closed, the DNR is asking visitors to bring their own hand sanitizer and trash bags.
Dumpsters are still available for use, but for the safety of their staff and others the DNR is avoiding contact with foreign objects when possible. The parks are now staffed with portable toilets and Olson said the DNR is repeatedly following up with their contractor to make sure they’re kept clean.
“(We’re telling people) to be mindful of other people,” Golder said. “Be respectful of their personal space and social distancing requirements for their concerns as well. You don’t know if that person coming down the trail is somebody with an underlying health condition that you could unwittingly spread the virus to.”
A complete list of DNR closures and other items related to COVID-19 can be found on the DNR’s website, Michigan.gov/dnr.
Because of the parks limited staffing, the requirement for the recreation passport — which gets people into state parks — is currently not in place.