Recreation sites balance health and fun throughout Arizona

Lower Lake Mary, a recreation site close to campus, is a popular place for hiking during the warm months and fishing when the lake is full.

Camping, hiking, visiting parks and even taking a walk around a pond are activities people of all ages can enjoy. Going outdoors can be a great way to stay active and escape the monotony of everyday life, especially during a pandemic. COVID-19 caused a lot of changes in people’s lives — workplaces shut down, hours were cut, events were postponed and many have needed to quarantine. Regardless, people are able to turn to nature for entertainment. 

COVID-19 has also affected recreation in various ways. Many explained changes in business, safety protocols, employee health and the cleanliness of sites have all had an impact on both visitors and recreation managers.   

Flagstaff local Willow Snider visited Flagstaff’s Lockett Meadow campground recently and said she was surprised at how many people were not wearing masks. 

“I think [not wearing a mask] is somewhat silly when some of these trails, and even the parking lots, are very, very crowded,” Snider said. “The air outside allows for a lot of air flow, but even when I drove through Sedona, it was so packed with people on the roads and at the creek that people should have been wearing masks, but I didn’t see any.” 

Snider explained it scares her when people do not realize or do not care that COVID-19 affects so many other people’s lives. She said she wonders if Arizonans just stopped caring about the pandemic completely.

“If anything, it seems like COVID has pushed people to the trails to be able to social distance, but there were still crowds,” Snider said. “I think people are just really tired of this, but have forgotten the high seriousness of it all.” 

Dove Luidhardt, park supervisor of White Tank Mountain Regional Park said the park also experienced an increase in use since COVID-19 hit. She said the park is the largest recreation site in Maricopa County and consists of many hiking, horseback and biking trails, a park visitor center and over 60 campground sites. Luidhardt explained the rise in park use shows how much the pandemic encouraged people to go outside, even though 2020 saw one of the hottest summer in the history of Arizona. 

Luidhardt explained some of the changes White Tank Mountain Regional Park enforced to stay consistent with health and safety precautions for the visitors. The park ended up closing its popular waterfall trail because people were not social distancing. She said this was the only trail closure the park enforced and the trail reopened in late June. Other COVID-19 changes the regional park faced included how visitors needed to make reservations to visit the park and restrictions in parking. 

An increase in attendance adds more pressure on employees, Luidhardt explained. She said the majority of the volunteer staff is in the at-risk category as most of the park hosts are over 50 or 60years old.

“We have been very fortunate that nobody on our staff has gotten COVID-19,” Luidhardt said. “We have a very limited staff here. We only have seven full-time employees and the rest are park volunteers and hosts, so there is not much we can do to increase staffing. We just have to get through it.” 

Another difficulty for parks this year was the unknown circumstances surrounding COVID-19, Luidhardt said. White Tank Mountain Regional Park changed their hours to close earlier than usual, which upset a lot of visitors. She explained many visitors were stressed with COVID-19 changes and took it out on the staff. 

“It was really hard to keep everyone on the same page because policies and procedures were literally changing every single day, so that was really challenging,” Luidhardt said. “Especially from a management perspective, I would send out an email to my staff and let them know how it would be for that day, and within me sending the email out [the procedures] would already change.”   

However, due to campgrounds and recreation sites being outdoors, Luidhardt said not much has changed in sanitization procedures. However, site bathrooms were required to be cleaned more frequently. 

With increased usage, Luidhardt explained that a challenge for those maintaining recreation sites is an increase in trash. She said a lot of people are new to outdoor recreation and are not educated on park etiquette and how to keep the areas clean. 

Although many have not respected the environment, she said COVID-19 has brought a lot of new users to the park. 

“It’s a positive and a negative,” Luidhardt said. “A lot more people are coming out to visit the park and getting to enjoy the health benefits both mentally and physically that it has to offer, which has been the largest benefit the park has gained.”

Robert Wisener, conservation and project manager for the City of Buckeye, said his experience with recreation sites has been different from Luidhardt’s. Unlike White Tank Mountain Regional Park, most of the recreation areas in Buckeye have been closed since the pandemic began. Wisener said Buckeye’s recreation center, senior center, parks and pools were closed for months. 

“We haven’t received too much backlash from the community because I think they understand that we are going through a pandemic and we need to put those safety precautions in place,” Wisener said. “We certainly are getting that pressure to reopen stuff back up.”  

Wisener said officials are considering opening some facilities and limiting the number of people who can visit and how long they can stay. He said the parks recently reopened and as of Oct. 19, other amenities like basketball courts and skate parks opened again. 

Officials in Buckeye have been careful not to open places up just to close them back down, Wisner said. He explained if places did close after reopening, there could be backlash from the community. Wisener said Buckeye has taken a pragmatic approach with many staff members having reached out to other cities to see their different approaches and what procedures have worked for them to make sure they are following the best practices. 

“It has certainly been an effort for us to learn from others’ mistakes [and those who] opened a bit earlier, and we are going through that process now,”  Wisener said. “A lot of our best practices, we are borrowing from the other agencies and learning what they did and putting those policies and procedures in place.” 

Since March, Wisener said Buckeye has seen a 40% increase in visitation at their parks compared to the previous year. Many have taken to the outdoors to have fun during the pandemic and it is an important part of their lives, so Wisener explained the efforts of those working in parks and recreation have been vital for community health and enjoyment.