As the weather has started to warm up as the calendar flipped from March to April, the impact of the isolation of COVID-19 is starting to take as big a mental toll on people as it has a physical and financial toll.
One area that has remained robust throughout these trying times has been the Wright County parks system.
It was an organic phenomenon that started in March and has continued to gain momentum, as parks that are typically scarcely used as the snow and ice melts away and the greening up process begins. The parks offer families and individuals the opportunity to practice social distancing while being able to enjoy the outdoors to get a sense of normalcy in a currently abnormal world.
Wright County Parks & Recreation Director Mark Mattice said he has been pleasantly surprised with the number of people that are using the parks, although the staff is strongly urging children not to use the playgrounds because they are virtually impossible to sanitize.
However, when it comes to hiking, walking the trails and just exploring nature and open spaces, the parks are getting used more than they ever have at what is deemed to be one of the slowest times of the year in Wright County parks because of the transitional change of seasons.
“March is typically a slow time for recreation in our parks,” Mattice said. “The weather is not conducive to winter recreation and it’s not conducive for what people consider to be spring and summer recreation – swimming, beaches, camping, those sorts of things. All of our parks are natural resource-based, so most of our unpaved trails are muddy. But, we have seen a pretty big uptick in usage since COVID-19 started changing everyone’s life. People just want to get out of the house and do something normal.”
The surprising influx of people using the parks has changed the daily routines of Parks & Recreation staff. Typically, they would be preparing the parks for the spring season, but, with so many people using the parks, that routine has changed.
“Our staff that works at the parks has seen the change,” Mattice said. “During the week when we’re doing our maintenance in preparation for the spring activities, we typically would do it once a week in each park. With all the traffic we’ve had, we had to go to our parks two or three times a week because they’re getting used that much.”
As word has gotten out that the parks are open for business and a way to get outdoor exercise and recreation, the usage numbers continue to rise. It isn’t just one park seeing a significant increase of public activity. It’s the entire park system.
“On a weekday last week, one of our employees pulled into Otsego Park at 8:30 in the morning and there were 19 cars in the parking lot,” Mattice said. “I went to Stanley Eddy Park last Sunday just to hike myself and the parking lot was full. Usually in March when I would do that, there would be one other car or just myself. We’re seeing increases in traffic like that in all the parks whenever one of our staff goes there.”
Mattice hopes that things will get back to normal sooner than later, but, for the time being, the Wright County parks are a respite from the sheltering in place rules and social distancing protocol. It may not always seem like spring is just around the corner in Minnesota, but those enjoying the parks during the troubled times are making the most of it.
“People just want things to be normal as much as they can,” Mattice said. “At this time of year, it’s not greened up yet, but when you’re in one of the parks, you know it’s coming. The birds are migrating in, which is cool. You hear the songbirds and it gives you a sense of hope. You hear them chirping and singing. You hear geese flying overhead. You know spring is coming and that’s why I think the parks have been so popular – even for those who aren’t outdoorsy types. We’re glad people are using them.”