During the time of COVID-19, there are quite a few National Parks that remain open to the public. We spoke with a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park to get a detailed view of what’s happening on the ground in one of America’s most popular parks. Our source requested to remain anonymous to protect their job. This interview took place the week of March 23, 2020.
Question: How is Grand Canyon National Park handling the COVID-19 crisis?
Answer: The park has been closing visitor services bit by bit as we can. It is Spring Break, and visitors are coming from across the US and risk spreading the virus to park staff and visitors. It’s frightening to see how many visitors are still coming to the park, crowding the rim, and acting as if there is no pandemic. Especially since we’ve pulled staff from manning entrance booths for their safety, there is minimal crowd control. The National Parks in general are already short-staffed and unable to deal with a pandemic. I do not feel like we have the ability and resources to keep visitors safe, nor to protect our natural and cultural resources from the people crowding into the park.
Q: How is park staff specifically affected by the crisis?
A: Around 2,500 people live & work at the Grand Canyon. A third of those people live below the poverty line and many don’t have health insurance. We are 1-1.5 hours away from any social services, and our community cannot afford to be swept by this virus. We have a tiny medical clinic that will be overloaded quickly. Our one small school has closed, and our small food pantry is already empty. In the course of the job, staff interacts with thousands of people, and the infection risk is off-the-charts. We can't manage to have "fewer than 10" people at one location nor can we manage "social distancing". I have seen the most oblivious behavior from visitors: how can they not know we are in a pandemic, or do they just not think they can get sick or make others sick?
Park staff have been exposed to visitors from all over the world for several weeks. Everyday we get an update on the number of people from our community who have contracted the virus, the number of people in the county who have it, and the number who have died. The Navajo Nation has requested that all of their people return home and shelter in place: they have more courage than the political leaders of Arizona.
Q: How could people respond better to the pandemic with regards to the National Parks?
A: People don't seem to realize that the same reasons that sporting events, restaurants, Disneyland, movie theaters, etc. are closed are the exact same reasons why it is unsafe to visit national parks at this time. "Fresh air" and being outside is all well and good: sharing that space with others is not. Please, PLEASE ask the public to stay away from the parks at this time. Despite what the Secretary of Interior is saying, most of my colleagues at the Grand Canyon feel the park should be closed.
I want to enjoy our public lands, and I want others to enjoy them as well. Now is not that time. Only a tiny percent of people ever get into the backcountry: most are crowded into small areas. Now is not the time to come to national parks. Please, America, stay at home.
Update as of 4/1: Grand Canyon National Park has been closed to the general public indefinitely.