A walk through the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park, with its Monet painting-like views of the marshes and close encounters with alligators, sounds like a dream in these days of social distancing.
But it’s still possible to enjoy nature while maintaining a safe distance from people at national and state parks, at least for now, and as long as it’s not in Miami-Dade County, where sweeping closures of public parks and beaches are in effect.
Everglades and Biscayne National Parks will close to public access in Miami-Dade starting Friday, but visitors may still enter the river of grass through Everglades City in Collier County, which hasn’t enacted park closures, the National Park Service said in a statement on Friday.
Visitors may also enter Everglades National Park by boat from the Florida Keys, located in Monroe County, and can still go backountry camping as long as they use the wilderness campsites accessible by water. However, the Flamingo launch ramps and marina are closed.
The waters of Biscayne National Park remain open but all land-based access is closed including Convoy Point, Boca Chita, Elliott Key, and Adams Key.
Meanwhile, Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County and Dry Tortugas National Park in Monroe County remain open for public recreation thought visitor centers and concessions services are all closed, the statement said.
The National Park Service said Thursday that the four sites in South Florida -- Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas, and the Big Cypress National Preserve -- were open for recreational activities, a welcome respite from isolation, which is considered a key measure to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Parks this week announced they were shutting down all visitor centers and campgrounds, and canceled group activities to protect visitors and employees from potential transmission. Entrance fees are being waived and parks are asking visitors to heed the advice of health authorities to stay home if they are sick and wash hands often with soap.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors,” Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement on Wednesday.
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With access to beaches and public spaces severely limited by local authorities, national and state parks are among the few recreation options for families that are cooped up at home, enduring the added stress of schooling their children and working remotely during a time of great uncertainty. Opportunities to connect with nature, exercise and get some fresh air are even more precious now, said Becky Segal Gonzalez, a teacher in Miami.
“I’m so grateful that we have wide open spaces to safely do that,” she said. Gonzalez this week took her 19 year-old stepson and two daughters, ages 10 and 7, on a drive and short walks through the Everglades, taking the Loop Road Scenic Drive at Big Cypress National Preserve. “We did not interact or even come in contact with any other individual. This is a drive through the Everglades, there are little places to get out of your car and look. No handrails and nothing to touch,” she said.
Everglades National Park closed all its buildings including visitor centers and concessions. It also closed the Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds and all ranger-led and concession activities, such as kayak rentals and boat tours.
At Biscayne, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center will remain closed until further notice, while guided tours and educational programs operated by the Biscayne National Park Institute have been suspended until further notice. The ferry service to Dry Tortugas was also halted.
Even if boating with a small number of passengers would be in line with the most current social-distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), activity around the Convoy Point area of Biscayne National Park looked quieter than normal this week, said Dani Cessna, chief of interpretation and education at the park.
Restrooms at the national parks will remain open and are being cleaned by staff, according to the National Park Service.
State parks canceled all events, activities, pavilion rentals, and camping and cabin reservations for the next 60 days. The sites remain open for day use under reduced hours, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which manages 175 state parks, trails and historical sites, said on Friday it was closing state beach parks “as crowds continue to gather in large groups along the beaches of Florida.”
“While these beach parks will be closed, we have many other state parks currently open for day-use recreation, including hiking and biking,” DEP said.
Andrew Dykstra, an assistant professor of neural, cognitive and brain engineering at the University of Miami, was planning to go camping with his family at Bahia Honda State Park, in Big Pine Key, in early April. He got an email from the park this week saying all reservations were being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had such a good experience earlier this year camping at Flamingo in Everglades National Park that we booked another camping trip next month,” he said. With two young kids at home due to school closures in Miami-Dade, Dykstra said he would take them to explore the trails at Big Cypress and Shark Valley in the next few days.
At Bill Baggs Cape State Florida State Park in Key Biscayne, beaches and walking trails remain open but restaurants and the lighthouse are closed. Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park was open, but the city’s mayor, Mike Davey, asked Miami-Dade and the DEP to close both parks for fear spring breakers show up en masse to party on the beaches.
“With Miami Beach closed, these folks will come here. They may not care about COVID-19, but I have 13,000 residents, including 3,000 senior citizens, who do,” he tweeted on Wednesday night.
The South Florida Water Management District also suspended for 60 days all camping on lands it manages starting Thursday, March 19, to minimize activities that could potentially result in large gatherings. People who are currently camping in district-managed campgrounds can stay until 10 a.m. on Monday, March 23, when the areas will be closed, according to a statement.
Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, the 83-acre park that’s famous for its rare orchids and stunning tropical plant collection, also decided to close on Wednesday.
The CDC and the World Health Organization have issued guidelines that aim to “flatten the curve,” or reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus. One way to achieve this is by social distancing: staying at least six feet away from other individuals and refraining from being in confined spaces, among other precautions.