The first day of spring was beautiful in Oregon. Blue skies and warm sun greeted the state on March 19, tempting people out to beaches and hiking trails, snowy mountains and waterfall viewpoints.
A week later, virtually all outdoor recreation in Oregon had closed, including every national forest, all state parks, most national parks and a growing number of local parks across the state as officials responded to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a population that just couldn’t stay away from nature.
The closures coincided with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order banning all nonessential travel outside the home until further notice. The order also shut down playgrounds and closed all public and private campgrounds in the state.
The sudden wave of closures left many Oregonians reeling, wondering if there was some way to keep our cherished outdoor spaces open while maintaining public health. How and why were these severe decisions made?
READ MORE: Oregon trails and parks that have closed to the public
OREGON STATE PARKS
As the coronavirus began to spread across the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had a plan in place: advise all park visitors to maintain social distance, while beginning an orderly two-week shutdown of state park campgrounds.
At the time, public health officials were still recommending people go out hiking as a way to relax and maintain physical health. As long as people maintained the recommended six feet of social distance, there wouldn’t be a problem, they said.
But as the spring equinox sun carried into the first weekend of Oregon schools’ spring break, it quickly became clear that social distancing in parks was going to be a tall order.
“You always hold out hope that people will listen when you say, ‘don’t clump up,’” state parks spokesman Chris Havel said. “That didn’t happen.”
Instead people flooded state parks. Day-use areas and campgrounds were crowded. It was true in the Willamette Valley and way out in the high desert, but especially on the Oregon coast.
Throngs of visitors at beaches and in small towns alarmed local residents. Officials in towns up and down the coast told visitors to leave, closing local campgrounds, shutting down hotels and short-term lodging, and giving tourists 24 hours to go home.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not just an opportunity for a traveling vacation,” Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber said in a video message. “It’s a threat to our very lives.”
That development shook up the state parks department’s plans, Havel said. Officials suddenly saw the urgency of the moment. On Sunday afternoon, March 22, the department closed all campgrounds and day-use sites immediately, shutting down the entire state park system.
“This is not going the way we expected, and the local communities made a very good point,” Havel said of the department’s thinking that weekend. “The timelines here aren’t being dictated by our plans.”