Prove your humanity

UPDATE 5/28/2020:  Beginning June 6, all 58 state park beaches will open for swimming with State Park pools in green and yellow zones will open on June 13.

Gov. Tom Wolf has announced that all PA counties will be in the yellow phase by June 5.

Capacity at beaches and pools will be limited to 50 percent of normal capacity.

As soon as the Staresinic’s heard that camping was okay again, the family of six packed up their van and headed to the Allegheny National Forest along the Clarion River.

“We thought our family really needed to get out of the house and somewhere else for a couple days,” he said. 

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What they did was ‘dispersed camping’ — informal sites that you can drive up to but there are no facilities and, most likely, no people. That made Staresinic feel better about things.

“It’s not a campground; you’re not part of a big group that’s sharing facilities. There’s no water or bathrooms to share. We thought that was a safe option,” he said. 

The Allegheny National Forest has opened some campgrounds for RV/travel trailers, cabins, hard sites for tents, however, most of those bathroom facilities are still closed or limited to accommodations.

See the full listing of campgrounds and facilities here:

Private Campgrounds are Open

But private campgrounds are a different story. They’ve been open statewide since May 1st. And when the stay-at-home order was lifted, Jim Hare and his wife and two young boys were ready. They headed to Breakneck Campground, just outside of McConnells Mill State Park.

Every springtime, every year, I just wait to go camping,” he said. “So this year was no different, and I think we appreciated it even more because of how cooped up we’ve been.”

Hare reported that it was packed. “With the stay at home order just having been lifted, people were out in droves everywhere. There was loud music late at night, people having a good time.”

Take Precautions

While Hare said that he felt safe in the woods — safer than the grocery store, Neel Shah, an infectious disease doctor at UPMC, said people should realize that staying at a campground isn’t a risk-free activity.

“The virus is still out there,” he said. “There is a real risk of getting infected if people don’t practice social distancing and take precautions to reduce the risk of spread. I think if people do understand that and follow practices, we minimize those risks.” 

Dr. Shah said that bathrooms at shared campgrounds could be an area of relatively higher risk. Wearing face masks, limiting the number of people in the bathroom and wearing disposable gloves are all ways to minimize exposure to the virus that could be lingering on surfaces. Of course wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. Dr. Shah also recommends making sure you have all the supplies you need before you leave your house to minimize pit stops.

“Trying to be prepared before you go camping and minimizing the number of trips you go to public areas would be in your best interest,” he said.

What’s Open at State Parks

As for the Pennsylvania state park system, campgrounds are open in counties in the yellow phase of reopening, including bathrooms and marinas. Cabins in these areas will remain closed until June 12th, to allow returning staff to deep clean them, officials say.

All playgrounds, nature play areas, amphitheaters, and group camping facilities statewide will remain closed indefinitely. Pavilions will be open but only for groups under 25 and only on a first come first serve basis. Also, picnic tables in state parks have been spaced out to allow room to spread out and avoid crowds.

Record Number of Campers

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources  – which oversees state parks – says that it is seeing record numbers of visitors. Nearly every campsite in every state park in Western Pennsylvania was booked for the Memorial Day weekend. Terry Brady, the spokesperson for DCNR said while the staff has returned and the bathrooms have all been cleaned to CDC guidelines, they are really counting on visitors’ to use common sense.

“We’re getting a lot of newbies that have never been to state parks before. People want so badly to get away from things as they are and toward things as they naturally are.”

“Will we be capable of monitoring our restrooms if we get slammed with visitors? Probably not,” he said. “We don’t have the money to just say, let’s call in a massive cleaning crews. But picking up things —  maybe take a handkerchief and pick up somebody’s wrapper or something and throw it in the trash. We’re going to need help to keep our parks pristine as they normally are because we are expecting heavy turnout.”

The DCNR has not gotten any special virus-related budget bumps to help with the increased strain on the parks, but there will be increased ranger presence. Brady said there’s been an unexpected silver lining to all of this.

“We’re getting a lot of newbies that have never been to state parks before,” he said. “These people want so badly to get away from things as they are and toward things as they naturally are.”

A full listing of what’s open at state parks

  •       At least one restroom in day-use areas and in marinas at state parks and forests statewide will be open to the public on May 8. This is consistent with CDC guidance related to park and recreation area operations. Additional cleaning protocols are in place. Users should practice social distancing;


  •       All nine marinas in state parks – including Neshaminy on the Delaware in Bucks County – will be open to the public on May 8, or their typical designated opening date. This is in addition to shoreline mooring sites at all state parks;


  •       The three public golf courses  — one at Evansburg State Park, Montgomery County, and others at Caledonia State Park and Michaux State Forest were authorized to be open to the public starting on May 1. They are operated by private concessions;


  •       State park and forest facilities including offices, campgrounds, and the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle in the counties in the yellow phase will be open to the public on May 15. Cabins in these areas will not open until June 12, to allow returning staff the ability to thoroughly clean them and prepare them for use. Campgrounds and cabins in all other state parks will remain closed;


  •       Except for one restroom in each day-use area and marina, all state park and forest facilities outside of the counties in the yellow phase will remain closed until changes are made consistent with Governor Wolf’s guidelines for reopening.


  •       The public can still access DCNR trails, lakes, rivers, streams, forests, roads, and parking areas statewide for recreation.


  •       All playgrounds, nature play areas, interpretive centers, amphitheaters, and group camping facilities statewide will remain closed indefinitely. Swimming beaches statewide will be closed until June 6;


What DCNR is doing to guard against overcrowding:

  •        Boosting signage and social media outreach calling for social distancing, litter consciousness; and avoiding long trips;


  •        All programs, events, and large gatherings at state parks and forests in counties that are designated red are canceled through June 15. Based on availability, organizers will have the option to reschedule later in the year. No new reservations for these activities are being taken;


  •        In counties designated yellow, any events with more than 25 people will be canceled. If the event is under 25 people and outdoors it will be allowed to occur, however any indoor events will be canceled;


  •        Consistent with Governor Wolf’s guidelines for reopening, facilities such as pavilions will only be available for groups under 25 and will be on a first come first serve basis. Picnic tables in state parks will be dispersed to allow room to spread out and avoid crowds. Campsites and cabins should only be used by members living in the same household as part of COVID-19 mitigation efforts;


  •        People who live in areas still under stay-at-home orders should not travel long distances for outdoor recreation and instead should look for opportunities close to home.

What visitors can do to keep state parks and forest lands safe:

  •        Avoid crowded parking lots and trailheads 
  •        Bring a bag and either carry out your trash or dispose of it properly
  •        Clean up after pets
  •        Avoid activities with a greater risk of injury to avoid a trip to the emergency room
  •        Don’t hike, recreate in groups – go with those under the same roof
  •        Adhere to social distancing (stay 6 feet apart)
  •        Wear a mask
  •       Take hand sanitizer with you and use it regularly
  •       Avoid touching your face, eyes, and nose
  •       Cover your nose, mouth when coughing, sneezing with a tissue or flexed elbow
  •       If you are sick, stay home