Appeals grow to close US national parks during pandemic


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is sticking with its crowd-friendly waiver of entrance fees at national parks during the coronavirus pandemic, as managers at some parks try and fail to keep visitors a safe distance apart and communities appeal for a shutdown at other parks that are still open.

FILE - This Sept. 15, 2015, file photo, shows Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah. Zion National Park announced Monday, Marc h 23, 2020, it is closing its campgrounds and part of a popular trail called Angel's Landing that is often crowded with people. The top part of the hike that is being closed is bordered by steep drops and ascends some 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the southern Utah park's red-rock cliffs, offering sweeping views.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
FILE - In this May 21, 2011 file photo, tourists photograph Old Faithful erupting on schedule late in the afternoon in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. On Tuesday, March 24, 2020 the National Park Service announced that Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks would be closed until further notice, and no visitor access will be permitted to either park..(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

While the Interior Department agreed this week to requests from local managers of Yellowstone and some other iconic national parks to close, others remained open and newly free of charge. In Arizona, local governments and the Navajo Nation were waiting for an answer Thursday on their request earlier this week for federal officials to shut down Grand Canyon National Park as cases of the coronavirus grow in surrounding areas.

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2016 file photo visitors watch the morning sun illuminate the Grand Tetons from within the Great Room at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park north of Jackson, Wyo. On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the National Park Service announced that Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks would be closed until further notice, and no visitor access will be permitted to either park. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley,File)

“We think it’s just in the best interest of the community, the visitors and the staff,” said Lena Fowler, a supervisor in Coconino County, which includes the Grand Canyon. “What we’re really concerned about is making sure everyone is safe.”

Park officials announced Thursday evening that three of the canyon’s most popular trails — Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab — were being temporarily closed as of noon Friday, with some other operations being modified.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that advocates on park policy issues, called the administration’s decision to keep the Grand Canyon open “beyond reckless.”

The Trump administration has issued guidelines to Americans urging them to stay at home whenever necessary, skip discretionary travel and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. But critics see the move to keep the parks open as a mixed message with potentially dangerous consequences for virus spread. As jobless rates explode and the death toll surges in the country, the Republican president also is increasingly pushing to convey a rapid return to normalcy.

This Feb. 17, 2020 photo shows Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley near Mammoth, Wyo. On Tuesday, March 24, 2020 the National Park Service announced that Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks would be closed until further notice, and no visitor access will be permitted to either park. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

The National Park Service is deciding whether to shut down individual sites on a park-by-park basis, in consultation with state and local health officials, Nicholas Goodwin, a spokesman for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, said Thursday.

Goodwin said a decision by Bernhardt earlier this month to waive entrance fees during the pandemic was meant to give a financial break to those visitors who had decided they wanted to go, not to draw people outdoors and together on vistas and trails as coranavirus deaths and illnesses grow.

“It was not meant to create a flood of people to national parks,” Goodwin said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of those whose request to close was granted by the Interior Department earlier this week.

There, the number of visitors last week surged over the previous year’s figures despite infection risks, with about 30,000 people entering the park each day.

Despite efforts at Smoky Mountains park to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19, including closing restrooms and visitor centers, the park found it impossible to keep people from crowding together in popular spots, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.

The day after the closure announcement, park officials learned that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We looked at different models, including closing just the highly congested trails, but in the end, we decided to support the local community efforts to decrease unnecessary travel,” she said.

In the Southwest, local health officials for Arches and Canyonlands national parks also urged the park service Thursday to shut down those sites.

Despite orders barring out-of-town residents from staying overnight, hundreds of visitors are still coming to the parks, said Bradon Bradford with the Southeast Utah Health Department. That puts park staff at risk of infection, especially when shortages have left them unable to get items they need to keep the restrooms sanitized, he said.

The small, rural hospital could still be overwhelmed if people get seriously ill, officials said.

Across the United States, deaths from COVID-19 topped 1,200 on Thursday, and there were more than 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for canceling “all U.S. events of 10+ people” when there is a “minimal or moderate spread of COVID-19 in the community.”

Although Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC would be releasing new guidance on national parks and the virus on Thursday, there was no such release, CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed confirmed Thursday evening.

Criticism of the Interior Department’s delayed response grew Thursday.

“I just don’t understand what’s going on in terms of the senior leadership,” regarding cutting the entrance fees and keeping national parks open, said Kristen Brengel, a senior official with the National Parks Conservation Association.

National parks, including the Grand Canyon, have roads and trails designed to funnel visitors en masse to see views and wildlife, Brengel said. “They know they can’t keep people safe there,” she said.

National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said Thursday that the agency is working with Grand Canyon staff to review documentation the park sent in support of the request to close.

In an email to Grand Canyon staff this week, the park said it included information on the limitations of its public health system, wastewater treatment and emergency responders.

The park gets more than 6 million visitors a year, but it’s also home year-round to about 2,000 people, including a small community of Havasupai tribal members. The spread of the coronavirus quickly could overwhelm a small clinic at the national park.

The Navajo Nation, which has 71 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, closed tribal parks, placed restrictions on businesses and issued a stay-at-home order for residents on the vast 27,000-square-mile (70,000-square-kilometer) reservation that extends into Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

“We are experiencing constant traffic through Navajo communities, and we simply cannot afford any additional outbreaks among our Navajo people, non-Navajo residents or those tourists travelling through the Navajo Nation,” tribal President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrote in the letter seeking the park closure.

Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz., and Loller from Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

WATCH: Reporter becomes an internet hit with Yellowstone bison video (provided by CBS Baltimore)


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US airlines slash food and beverage service

Major U.S. carriers have announced temporary cutbacks to food and beverage services as Covid-19 safety measures.

Southwest has gone the farthest on this front, announcing that it is suspending all in-flight beverage and snack service as of March 25 until further notice.

“Our desire to continue providing Southwest hospitality is as strong as ever, and the entire Southwest team truly appreciates our customers’ understanding of the difficult decisions we must make during these unprecedented times,” spokesman Brad Hawkins said in an email.

Also March 25, Delta said that the only beverages it will serve across all cabins is individual bottled waters. In addition, the carrier halted meal service in first class and Delta One cabins for domestic flights and short-haul international flights. Only snacks will be provided.

American has ended first class meal service on flights of 2,200 miles or shorter. The carrier has also eliminated snacks or food for purchase and alcohol on those flights. Water, canned beverages and juice are still available upon request. Longer flights will also have reduced service options, though alcohol remains available in first class and meals will continue to be served on long-haul flights.

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COVID-19 Prompts US Virgin Islands to Close Borders

U.S. Virgin Islands is the latest tourism-reliant Caribbean nation to join global efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 by closing its air and sea borders to visitors. The popular land and cruise vacation destination will bar visitors for 30 days beginning March 25, said Albert Bryan, the territory’s governor.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, including the main islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix have 17 confirmed positive cases and “more expected from pending tests,” said Bryan said. The decision to close the territory’s ports rests with the federal government, he adds.

However “The Administration’s move to prohibit visitor arrivals will help minimize the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on vulnerable members of the Virgin Islands community,” Bryan said in a statement.

Beginning Wednesday hotels, resorts, guest houses, bed-and-breakfasts, home-sharing accommodations and charter vessels may not accept new reservations. The government is advising travelers who have recently checked into hotels and resorts to return home, but they may remain in the territory if they choose.

Bryan also ordered the closure of non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants (excluding take-out service). Residents are also directed to stay at home. Emergency management personnel, overnighting flight crews and officials responding to the COVID-19 crisis are exempt from the restrictions.

Travelers who booked vacations visiting the territory through April 25 should contact respective travel partners regarding cancellation policies, said Joseph Boschulte, the U.S. Virgin Islands tourism commissioner.

“We are working closely with the U.S.V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association to encourage travelers to postpone – not cancel – their visit,” he said. Although “[COVID-19] mitigation strategies [are] of paramount importance at this time,” discussions continue with airline and cruise industry partners “as the Territory prepares for its post-pandemic recovery,” Boschulte added.

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