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Virus has people staying close, crowding state parks

by Tanner Newton | September 10, 2020 at 3:34 a.m.

HOT SPRINGS -- Lake Ouachita State Park and other areas of the Arkansas State Parks system have seen weekend crowds at the level of major summertime holidays since the pandemic began.

"Every weekend seems like Memorial Day weekend" for larger parks, said Grady Spann, director of Arkansas State Parks, attributing the quote to another employee in the system. Spann called it a "good description" of the crowd levels.

Lee Howard, Lake Ouachita State Park superintendent, echoed that thought. "Every weekend seems like the Fourth of July," Howard said, adding that each week on those two days the park reaches capacity.

Every Saturday and Sunday park employees are directing traffic because of the "number of people coming up," Howard said, noting, "That level of crowd was never seen before."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Because of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, state parks such as Lake Ouachita are seeing locals visit the parks more than before, Howard said.

"We are so overcrowded," he said, and the "overcrowding seems to be confined to the day-use [area]."

Visitors to the day-use areas live up to three hours away from the park and are "just getting out and seeing something different."

Once the parking lots are full, Howard said, park employees have to turn guests away, and on weekends the lots are full by midmorning.

The campgrounds have also been full at the park, but Howard said that is typical, and it is "very rare to have space, before or now" that isn't booked up.

Howard said he is enthusiastic about the season, and it was "delightful to see this" number of people interested in the park. "Things are going well," he said.

Spann said the number of visitors that Lake Ouachita is seeing is not uncommon, noting the larger parks in the state, such as Devil's Den State Park and Pinnacle Mountain State Park, are seeing "maximum crowds."

"Lake Ouachita is one of our most popular parks," he said.

Even parks that aren't seeing this level of visitors, Spann said, are still seeing an increase in guests. He said other state park systems around the country are also seeing similar results.

Spann said the parks are seeing record numbers of campers around the state, and June and July took in the "highest revenue of camper fees."

"People are really seeking out the outdoors, nationwide," he said.

Once the covid-19 pandemic is over, Spann said he hopes the level of enthusiasm for the parks continues.

"What we're seeing is a whole new generation" of people who will use these parks, Spann said, noting that people are learning during the pandemic that nature is good and healthy.

The parks offer "quality of life. Parks are healthy for people," he said.

Spann reminded people that the coronavirus is also in the parks and people need to take appropriate precautions. Visitors should stay a social distance of 6 feet from others and wear masks.

If such efforts are not followed, parks could be forced to temporarily close, as Lake Ouachita did in the early days of the pandemic, he said.

Lake Ouachita closed for one week in April after an outbreak of covid-19 there. Three campers tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the entire 23-person staff into self-isolation.

The park reopened when the quarantine time was completed, with none of the staff members showing signs for covid-19.

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