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Democrats cite overcrowding as park reopenings are planned

Visitors and employees aren’t able to maintain social distancing, lawmakers tell Interior secretary

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt how his department was responding to alleged overcrowding at national parks and public land sites during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the department prepares to reopen the entire system.

In a letter Monday from National Parks, Forest and Public Lands Chairwoman Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and 11 other committee Democrats, the lawmakers cited “numerous reports of overcrowding and high visitation at national parks and public land sites during the pandemic that prevented visitors and employees from maintaining social distancing.” 

The lawmakers also said that “the administration has continued to encourage public lands visits without implementing clear protocols to ensure the health and safety of visitors and employees.” 

About 260 of the 416 units in the National Park Service system remain open, according to an Interior spokesperson, who also noted that every park has modified operations to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners continues to be our highest priority,” the Interior spokesperson said. “Every operational change made at a national park or on our public lands during this pandemic has been led by federal, state and local public health officials.”

Last week, the Interior Department announced it would resume NPS operations on 500 million acres of public lands under the first phase of the Trump administration’s Opening Up American Again plan.

“President [Donald] Trump recently unveiled new guidelines for Opening Up American Again, a three-phased approach to assist state and local officials in safely reopening their economies, getting people back to work and continuing to protect American lives,” Bernhardt said in a statement Friday. “In accordance with this guidance and in coordination with governors across the country, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service are working to reopen the American people’s national parks as rapidly as possible.”

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