HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Early in the afternoon April 7, Gov. Phil Murphy announced his executive order to close all county and state parks in the Garden State as another measure to enforce social distancing protocol and stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By early evening, Hunterdon County officials were prepared to comply with the governor’s order starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, but this outline was not well-accepted, with further restrictions placed on activities and fresh air for families in a rural, less densely-populated part of the state.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren said this “one-size-fits-all” requirement to close New Jersey’s parks, except for municipal park operations, came on very short notice of seven hours for county departments to coordinate. Moreover, he said the move “penalizes the many for the actions of the few.”

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“I personally take exception to this short notice for the county to pivot to close our parks, and while we realize there are issues with social distancing, new issues are going to be created as a result of the closures,” he said. “People still want and need to get out, to walk, to run and to hike, while keeping socially distant.”

Tewksbury Township, where Van Doren resides and served as a councilman for 21 years,
announced at 4 p.m. Tuesday that its municipal parks will remain open for “non-group recreational activities while maintaining social distancing.”

“I applaud Tewksbury for doing that, and wish Hunterdon County could have done the same for county parks, but we must comply with the governor’s order,” he said.

Hunterdon County parks encompass 8,500 acres of land and operations at 29 park settings and recreational natural spaces. County parks include Deer Path Park on West Woodschurch Road in Flemington and the Uplands Reserve in Raritan Township.

“At county parks, barriers will be erected indicating the closure of areas that can be physically closed with already-existing infrastructure in place,” Van Doren said. “But understand that we cannot physically close every entry and access point into every county park and county-owned trail. We will do what we can with the resources that we have.”

Playground equipment, recreational ballfields, restrooms and buildings of all county parks were closed three weeks ago in accordance with COVID-19 social distancing precautions and the governor’s order stopping group gatherings.

Freeholder John Lanza said he finds the governor’s decision to close all county and state parks baffling. A week ago, he advised residents that Hunterdon County parks would remain open for passive, non-group use and for people to get some fresh air.

“It just does not seem to make a lot of sense, I just don’t see the logical consistency in this decision,” he said. “I think there is conflict in the fact the governor is choosing to close county and state parks, but leaving municipal parks open. If the concern is that people are just not socially distancing, then it seems to me if you make a decision to close the parks you would close all of them. People need an outlet from being cooped up in their home and our parks system provides that outlet.”

The 70-mile-long, 4,000-acre D & R Canal State Park also runs parallel to the Delaware River in Hunterdon municipalities, including Frenchtown, Stockton and Lambertville.

“By closing the state and county park systems but leaving the municipal parks open, it creates great pressure on the municipal parks to be able to enforce social distancing,” Lanza said Tuesday, about five hours after Murphy’s announcement and with just 90 minutes before the mandate took effect at 8 p.m.

Raritan Township decided Wednesday to close its municipal parks as well, and Flemington Borough is also closing Tuccamirgan Park.