It’s a hard decision but parks must remain closed, legislators say

Senator Vin Gopal, Assemblyman John F. McKeon | April 19, 2020 | Star-Ledger |

 

Living near a public park – whether state, local or county – is one of the many upsides of residing in the Garden State. Whether it’s walking through Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park or hiking in South Mountain Reservation, New Jersey’s open spaces often provide a welcome respite to our lives.

We know that Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe also treasure our open spaces and recognize their importance to people across our state. That’s why we understand how difficult it must have been to close New Jersey’s state and county parks as part of our statewide response to COVID-19.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a time of easy decisions.

And we support the decision to temporarily close New Jersey’s parks.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 78,000 of our fellow New Jerseyans have tested positive for COVID-19. Sadly, more than 3,800 have passed away. Statewide, we owe it to them – and to their families and loved ones – to take an aggressive approach to protect public health, especially when it comes to social distancing.

Over 11,500 New Yorkers have also died so far from COVID-19. Between, New Jersey and New York, we are averaging nearly 1,000 deaths per day this past week. This is a horrific statistic.

As Governor Murphy and state health experts have said on many occasions, we must do everything we can to flatten the curve and slow the rate of new COVID-19 infections

Unfortunately, just as the COVID-19 outbreak was surging, so were the crowds at state parks and forests. Just prior to closing state and county parks, visitation numbers to state parks were at unusually high levels. And so were the behaviors that threaten public health.

On one recent weekend, State Park Police issued 30 tickets, gave more than 250 verbal warnings reminding visitors about social distancing guidelines, dispersed more than 160 crowds and gatherings, and evicted five different groups of people from state parks for refusing to follow directions. We have personally seen groups in our own neighborhood parks who may not have any ill intentions, but who nevertheless are continuing to violate safe distance rules.

In addition, cars visiting New Jersey state parks with out-of-state license plates indicated that many visitors were not following advisories to stay close to home, further exacerbating public health threats.

The unsafe conditions created by the increasing attendance, lack of social distancing and risk to the public as well as park personnel led to this very difficult decision. But there is a higher purpose here: we must put public health and safety first and foremost. Doing so could mean saving the lives of fellow New Jerseyans.

While it pains us to see our parks and forests closed, everyone must follow the direction of our health experts in their urgent call to stay home as much as possible right now in order to continue flattening the curve of new COVID-19 cases. The governor says there is progress toward reducing the number of new cases, which shows that social distancing and staying home are working. However, much work remains to be done and our continued vigilance is required. We must stay the course to keep everyone safe.

We encourage the governor to open our public spaces as soon as health experts tell him it is safe to do so, and believe that he is of like mind. With your help, we look forward to the day when we all may return to our parks and forests with our families to safely enjoy the great outdoors of our Garden State.

 

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