On the evening of April 1, 2020, the Grand Canyon became the latest U.S. national park to close to visitors because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The country’s second-most popular park shut down abruptly after National Park Service (NPS) officials received a letter from the Heath and Human Services director and chief health officer for surrounding Coconino County recommending the move.
Over the past two weeks, parks across the country locked their gates, barring access to visitors who have swarmed these public spaces, making it impossible to follow proper social distancing protocols in the face of this highly infectious disease. But while almost all of the top 10 most-visited parks closed, the Grand Canyon, which welcomed nearly 6 million people last year, remained a concerning holdout.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents more than 1,800 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service, used the continued stream of visitors at the Grand Canyon as an example of why all parks should be closed. In a March 31 letter to the Department of the Interior, the organization pointed out that even while most basic services in the Grand Canyon were closed, roads remained open and hundreds of visitors were congregating at popular viewpoints.
When park did finally close following the recommendation by local health officials, it happened so quickly that it took residents by surprise, reports the Arizona Republic. Barriers sprang up and law enforcement officers suddenly started turning visitors away.
The decision comes just days after news broke that the first Grand Canyon resident tested positive for COVID-19 on March 30, though, as of Wednesday morning, there were a total of 85 identified cases of COVID-19 and four deaths related to it in Coconino County at large.
Park employees plead for a nationwide shutdown
There are now more than 100 NPS sites closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but more than 300 of the 419 sites remain open, despite concerns about the health risks to park visitors, employees, and the residents of gateway communities. As of March 30, seven workers at national park sites have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has repeatedly urged widespread closures. A week ago, when Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that entrance fees would be waived at all national parks in an effort to aid public distancing during the pandemic, the organization criticized the move as “irresponsible to the visiting public and employees.” Following the closure of the Grand Canyon, the Coalition sent a letter to acting NPS director David Vela repeating its request for a nationwide shutdown and stating that “decisions regarding closures and restrictions to protect employee and public health within units of the National Park System are a federal responsibility under the jurisdiction of the Department and the NPS.”
However, it looks like the DOI will continue to operate on a park-by-park basis. In the press release about the Grand Canyon’s closure, Secretary Bernhardt noted that the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials when it comes to determining the operations of individual parks.
Which one is next?
On the heels of the Grand Canyon’s closure, Zion shut down on the afternoon of Friday, April 3, 2020. All of the top 10 most-visited parks are now closed, but many smaller parks in the country—including other Utah parks Arches and Bryce Canyon—remain open. The National Park Service recommends that visitors continue to check with individual parks for up-to-date information about park operations.
Need to find another way to get your great outdoors fix these days? Read about how to visit a national park without actually visiting a national park, or check out our safe, practical guide to getting outside while social distancing.
This article originally appeared online in April 2, 2020; it was updated on April 6, 2020, to include current information.