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More Oregon State Parks Continue To Reopen On A Day-By-Day Basis

From 2011 to 2016, visitation at Smith Rock State Park increased from 450,000 to about 700,000 day use visitors annually.
Amanda Peacher/OPB
From 2011 to 2016, visitation at Smith Rock State Park increased from 450,000 to about 700,000 day use visitors annually.

One of the most popular state parks in Central Oregon will be reopening as the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department continues to slowly reopen more state parks on a daily basis.

One popular state park and rock-climbing destination that is scheduled to reopen Thursday is Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon.

“We’ve been laying plans to get that park, which is enormously popular, back open in a limited control way and that’s the one exception where there’s a couple of days’ warning,” OPRD’s Spokesman Chris Havel said.

Havel said the state has been gradually reopening parks on a day-by-day basis without making big announcements about which are the latest to reopen. Think of it as a soft-relaunch.

The idea is to ease people back in and avoid overcrowding or having people plan long-distance trips to visit these parks. OPRD continues to make sure that communities where they plan to reopen parks are ready for visitors, that there is enough staff at the park, and they are able to manage the park in the best interests of public health for both visitors and staff.

Havel said for the most part, things ran smoothly at reopened state parks over the weekend. People were giving each other space and following social distancing guidelines.

But there were some places across the state that had some problems of overcrowding. Havel said it may be that the excitement of finally getting out to a park or back on the water may have overcome some people’s commitment to social distancing.  

“We generally were seeing two different kinds of issues. First, people driving up to a park, seeing that it was busy, seeing that maybe that the parking area was full, and still coming in,” Havel said. “... Second, at several parks it was people not giving each other enough distance and those two things are related.”

Havel said these issues were sporadic problems and they were not persistent. 

Some areas that remained closed or access-restricted experienced overcrowding problems during the weekend — the warmest since the summer of 2019 — as well.

Police turned away over 700 people from gathering at Cannon Beach. Most were reported to be folks from out of town. 

North along the coast in Warrenton, Mayor Henry Balensifer said he saw about 50 to 60 RVs from Oregon and several more with out-of-state license plates that were turned away as beach access was still closed.

“There was a snafu in communications and the county kept their access open instead of their standard closure on the weekend policy and the beaches were probably more packed than they ever were this year,” Balensifer said, referring to the scene Friday.

Balensifer said mixed messaging from different state agencies are hard to follow when they change daily and cause a lot of confusion for people. 

Havel said it’s a new experience, to close down and then gradually reopen state parks with access restrictions still in place.

“It's not easy and it's not going to be easy,” Havel said. “No matter how many times we sit down and try to hammer out the details there’s always going to be these teeth in the gear that's a little bit out of line.”

Popular areas like the Columbia River Gorge and the North Coast will take longer to reopen, as people are still adjusting to following social distancing guidelines when visiting parks. For the next few weeks, Havel said as more park staff and communities are ready more areas will reopen.  

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.