HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders and State Environmental Protection officials brought up observations and continued safety protocols for residents and visitors engaging in outings to county parks, state parks, trails, beaches and the outdoors in general with Memorial Day weekend unofficially kicking off summer recreational plans.  

At the Freeholder Board’s meeting May 19, freeholder John Lanza commented on another positive report by Hunterdon County Sheriff Fred Brown and his staff on the public’s use of county parks and trails during the weekend of May 16 and May 17.

“The public using Hunterdon County’s parks have shown they are willing to abide by social distancing as the governor rescinded his executive order to close the state and county parks three weeks ago,” Lanza said. “The people are proving that the decision on parks and trails should have been left to the freeholder board and each county. Before Gov. Murphy closed parks, we had already seen the public observing the health protocols. We knew there was no reason to close Hunterdon County’s parks.”

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In addition to county parks, the closures (April 7) and reopenings (May 2) of New Jersey’s 51 state-run parks and forests gained much attention in Hunterdon County.

During a May 20 webinar sponsored by environmental groups including Flemington-based Hunterdon Land Trust, the Musconetcong Watershed Association, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Watershed Institute, NJ Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe spoke about challenges in keeping New Jersey’s parks open, available and safe for everyone to enjoy.

“People are finding parks to be more important than ever,” she said. “It’s the one place that we feel that we can get out and that is, or at least should be, safe from worries about the coronavirus. That is why NJDEP’s primary focus is reopenings of parks facilities in a way that makes them both accessible and safe. Our highest priority is protecting the health of the public as well as our very dedicated park workers who protect the parks and the people in them.”

McCabe commented that people gathering for fun at the park represents “the way it should be, but not the way it can be during a public health emergency.”

While the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have gone down steadily, she said it’s sobering to realize over 153,000 New Jerseyans are or were infected with COVID-19, with 11,081 dead statewide.

McCabe urged environmental and natural lands advocacy groups to present clear messaging to members and communities on the continuing need for face coverings and masks at state parks. She said the DEP and park staff observed, to date, that people are wearing masks less often than more often.

“It depends on where you are in a park or setting about being able to keep safe physical distances, you might find yourself walking along a narrow trail and you never know about someone approaching from either direction,” she said. “Or it could be on a wider trail that you’ll end up in close quarters with runners, bicyclists and anyone using the same space at a different pace. And large open spaces can even quickly become crowded.”

Lanza added that the state’s recent announcement that parks restroom facilities can reopen comes along with acknowledging the commitments to “significant, periodic cleaning protocols put in place, which would make sense.”

Lanza noted that at Deer Path Park, north of Flemington, it was anticipated that restroom facilities would be open in time for Memorial Day weekend. He noted that as of late May, per Gov. Murphy’s executive orders, the pavilions, ballfields and playgrounds will remain closed.

The maintenance considerations remain for each day parks are open, particularly during and after weekends.

According to McCabe, levels of staffing and frequency of cleanings for state parks’ restrooms and facilities presents another long-term issue.

“This is not over, New Jersey is at Stage 1 of reopening and not State 3, and we’re being really careful with parks facilities,” she said. “We need people to understand how important it is to respect park capacity limitations of facilities and restrooms, and to keep physical distancing from each other. We need people to understand why not all the restrooms can be immediately reopened and how we’d open them in phases, as we bring our seasonal maintenance staff on-board.”

“Given the uncertainty with the pandemic and the economic fallout and its impacts on the state budget, we’re only just beginning to bring seasonal staff on-board,” she added. “In a normal year, we would usually be up to speed or ahead of the game by Memorial Day.”

McCabe said Murphy has encouraged them to hire the full complement of seasonal staff they were expecting to this summer, but they will be stretched with the extra cleaning requirements and other duties.

“Ultimately, it may not be possible to open all of the restrooms, or the state may find that we will need to close some of them again in order to maintain safe conditions, as limited staff try to do a job of disinfecting restrooms frequently to keep everyone safe,” she said.

On a fun note, Lanza commended Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation staff for their creativity and focus on recent initiatives in family programming for virtual learning and exploration of nature.

“Distance learning, virtual trips and experiences via Facebook and the county website and parks and recreation webpage have been very helpful for parents while our in-park activities have been suspended,” he said.