Updated Wednesday at 9:08 a.m.:
Thirty-four Wisconsin state parks, forests and recreational areas closed for three weeks will be able to reopen on Friday as temperatures increase across the state and cases of coronavirus level off, Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday.
The Democratic governor has faced increasing criticism from Republicans and the state’s business community to loosen his stay-at-home order that runs until May 26. The announcement of park openings came the day after Evers also allowed nonessential businesses that can offer contactless curbside drop-off and pick-up, like dog groomers and small engine repair shops, to reopen.
I know how important getting outside and enjoying Wisconsin’s beautiful spring weather is for both physical and mental health. This morning we announced that 34 state parks and forests will be reopening on May 1.
Learn more here: https://t.co/sa9txwo6Fk
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) April 28, 2020
Evers faced a Tuesday deadline to respond to a Republican lawsuit seeking to block his stay-at-home order and force him to work with the Legislature on an alternative plan.
Evers ordered the closure of 40 state parks and recreational areas on April 10, citing overcrowding that could hasten the spread of COVID-19, mounting trash, dwindling cleaning supplies and vandalism. Maintaining the parks has been more difficult after Evers waived entrance fees and closed park offices, visitor centers and bathrooms.
The parks will open with new conditions designed to minimize overcrowding. DNR Secretary Preston Cole says in order to maintain social distancing, each park will reopen at only 75% of its capacity.
He says DNR wardens and staffers will make sure people are acting responsibly. “We have to limit the amount of people that come into the parks," Cole says. "It’s not everybody in the pool any longer. Law enforcement’s role is to remind individuals in the park that they have to pay close attention to social distancing. Law enforcement is there, and park staff is there to make sure that people are paying attention.”
Bathrooms will remain closed, as will towers, shelters, playgrounds, nature centers, headquarters, contact stations and concession buildings. Camp sites will remain closed until May 26.
Annual park passes will now be required and won’t be for sale at the parks. The parks will open as usual at 6 a.m. but some will close four hours earlier at 7 p.m. And, some parks will be closed on Wednesdays for maintenance. Hunting and fishing will be allowed on all open properties in accordance with the legal season structure and hours, but access may be limited to walk-in or by water.
Boat launches are open at state properties and all trails are open, including those for ATVs. Evers' order on Monday allowed for the reopening of businesses that rent ATVs and other recreational equipment, including kayaks.
“Outdoor recreation is important for both physical and mental health, and I know how important it is to Wisconsinites to get outside and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources and spring weather,” Evers said in a statement.
The closures included some of the state’s most popular hiking and camping destinations, all in southern and southeastern Wisconsin nearest to the most populated cities of Madison and Milwaukee. Parks in the rest of the state have remained open. Popular parks that will reopen include Devil’s Lake, Governor Dodge and Kettle Moraine.
Evers warned that those and other popular parks may temporarily close when the properties become too crowded to operate safely.
Under Evers’ order Tuesday, all but four of the closed parks will reopen. Natural areas that will remain closed are Gibraltar Rock; Pewit’s Nest; Parfrey’s Glen; and Dells of The Wisconsin River. Evers said they will remain closed for the health and safety of the public, staff and integrity of the property. Two state trails that had been closed were previously reopened by the state Department of Natural Resources.
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