SALT LAKE CITY — Authorities who oversee federally owned lands are waiving entrance fees to open the land up as recreational social distancing spaces amid COVID-19 concerns.
The National Park Service announced Wednesday it was no longer collecting entrance fees at the direction of Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Bureau of Land Management officials said Thursday that the same direction was given for land overseen by the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All suspension of entrance fees will remain in place until further notice, according to the agencies.
The measure opens up the country’s many national parks and national historic parks, including six in Utah, as well as about 245 million acres of public land owned by the BLM, for those who would like to avoid throngs of people while also not being stuck indoors.
"Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing," Bernhardt said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
The move comes at a time of some skepticism about parks remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Guardian, for example, reported on Tuesday that park employees from all over the U.S. were concerned about the "dorm-like quarters" they live in, as well as public bathrooms and other public facilities on park grounds that visitors could congregate to.
Some were also upset after the NPS entrance fee announcement was made.
"It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe," Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Even with entrance fees waived, many park facilities are closed, including Zion National Park’s shuttle bus and the Golden Spike National Historical Park’s visitor center. Those seeking to venture out to a national park should check with the park to see what remains open.
The agencies also recommend that visitors maintain proper social distancing practices while outdoors, such as staying at least 6 feet away from others, coughing and sneezing into their arm instead of hand, washing their hands regularly and avoid going to public places when sick.
As for Utah State Parks, the agency says most of its parks are operating regularly, aside from visitors centers and campgrounds that are closed. All but Great Salt Lake State Park and Jordan River Off-Highway Vehicle State Park were open Thursday.
"We advise park visitors to always use their best judgment when determining the safety of themselves and their families," the Utah State Parks website says. "Guests are encouraged to practice healthy hygiene and avoid visiting parks if they feel ill or are having symptoms."