Social distancing is easier outside.

That simple maxim drove Americans outdoors in a huge way last year. Local, state and national parks usage shot up substantially in 2020 as people searched out leisure and fitness activities that weren’t precluded by COVID-19 rules limiting indoor entertainment and exercise options where the coronavirus is more easily spread.

The influx certainly created hurdles for some parks, which struggled to accommodate increased demand while budgets and staffing were being cut. But it also created growth opportunities for companies catering to the demand for outdoor gear and proved affirming for parks staff, who often feel under-appreciated come budget time.

As the second pandemic spring dawns a year after Michigan’s first infections arose, and vaccines offer a path back to normal life, parks officials hope those who took refuge from the pandemic in the great outdoors keep coming back for more.

“The torch that we’ve been carrying for years is that parks are an essential part of any community and this just emphasized how essential they are,” said Clay Summers, director of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association. “Where did people go when there was a pandemic? They went outdoors to public spaces. They went to parks.”

“It created opportunity,” Summers said. “There is some good coming out of this.”

Summers, whose organization represents parks departments around the state, said there was an “across the board” boost in usage between 50 and 150 percent last year while some of those same departments also saw funding slashed.

But the struggle for parks last year wasn’t just limited to logistics and budgeting. The risk potential outside is better understood now versus a year ago, when, as the first COVID cases were confirmed in Michigan and stay-home orders took effect, parks locked access gates and caution tape went up around playgrounds out of an abundance of caution.

But facilities reopened as health guidance evolved and quarantine orders eased. While transmission can occur outdoors, research shows the virus is not easily spread through contaminated surfaces but rather through airborne respiratory droplets. Outside, those readily disperse in the breeze, significantly reducing the chance others will be exposed to an infectious dose.

Now, experts are pushing people to get outdoors.

“We want to make sure that people are moving activities outdoors whenever possible,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said in a March 17 press briefing.

Retailers say people have been taking that to heart.

“There’s a lot of people still not comfortable going to the gym who have decided they want to get outside and try a new activity or area around town,” said Chris Spyke, assistant store manager at Gazelle Sports in Kentwood.

“People are exploring a lot more.”

Like many outdoor gear retailers, Spyke said Gazelle, a Michigan-based company, saw a boom in online sales last year when storefronts temporarily closed. Many of those purchases were by new customers looking for gear and education about recreation opportunities close to home.

Cooped-up customers coupled with manufacturing constraints resulted in nationwide supply shortages last year for items like bicycles, kayaks and camping gear. Boats and RVs sold in record numbers as well. At Gazelle, online sales “pretty much doubled” year-over-year, Spyke said. Most of that was from people buying footwear and apparel.

“It was astronomical,” he said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written down a list of local trails to go try out,” Spyke said. “These are places that have been around forever that people just hadn’t heard of — and the traffic at those parks in the summer was wild.”

State park use in Michigan was up more than 25 percent, approaching 35 million visitors overall last year, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Hunting and fishing license sales shot up, too. The DNR said online license sales increased 127 percent over 2019 and a sizable percentage, roughly 20 percent, of unique customers were between age 17 and 24. Revenue from Recreation Passport vehicle stickers, which allow access to state parks and recreation areas, was up 15 percent through this January. Off road vehicle (ORV) licenses are up 61 percent and snowmobile permits were up 11 percent through February.

National parks in Michigan saw record visitation numbers.

More than 1.2 million people visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 2020, a roughly 41 percent increase over the previous record set in 2019. More than 1.7 million people visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last year and nearly 310,000 people visited River Raisin National Battlefield near Monroe, a 40 percent increase over 2019.

The numbers also indicate more day trips compared overnight stays. According to National Park Service data, nearly 150,000 more people visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2020 compared to 2019 even though tent and RV camping declined and total visit hours were down.

Unfortunately, trash and trouble increased at parks as well. Littering was a larger problem with more people out and beach cleanup days were canceled or delayed in many cases.

Pictured Rocks staff said they struggled with facilities maintenance and trailhead traffic jams. “Our facilities just weren’t designed to handle a million people,” Ron Jones, one of four park custodial staffers, told Bridge Michigan.

State parks struggled with the surge, too — especially once campgrounds reopened in June.

“We tried to get people to ‘carry-in and carry-out’ or ‘leave no trace,’ but that didn’t work very well,” said Ron Olson, chief of DNR parks and recreation. “We were kind of getting overwhelmed because we were dealing with minimal staffing.”

The DNR ended up closing some parks due to lack of parking space, such as Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park and Belle Isle, which “just about every weekend we had to close for a period of time in late afternoon on Saturday,” Olson said.

Others closed when visitors couldn’t adhere to social distancing requirements, such as at Tippy Dam Recreation Area near Manistee, which shut down for about a month last spring. Concerns about crowding also led to boat launch closures in some places. An early restriction on boating lifted in late April after conservation activists sued the governor.

Much of the parks visitation surge was from new users, Olson said. There were lots of inexperienced people hiking, camping and backpacking. Backcountry rescues at the Porcupine Mountains were up last year “more than any of the staff can remember.”

“Anywhere you could get outdoors and do something was very busy,” said Olson said. “We think that trend will continue.”

One indicator, he said, is state park camping reservations for 2021. Those are also up 30 percent compared to the previous registration season, which started before the pandemic hit last year. “Clearly, there’s people making plans early,” he said.

Brad Garmon, director of the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation at the DNR, said the surge in outdoor recreation brought on by the pandemic portends additional opportunity for local areas around Michigan that already experience high tourism visitation.

Tourism-dependent communities should consider investing in recreation infrastructure such as hiking and bicycling trails “so they can become oriented more around recreational rather than just tourism,” Garmon said. “There’s an opportunity to make that part of not just a tourism plan but really a diversification plan — a great place to live as well as to visit.”

Summers said parks systems should be taking concerted steps to capitalize on the surge in outdoor recreation, starting with updates to master planning documents oriented around habitualizing new park users.

Parks should be trying to retain visitors through marketing and programming like walking, biking and nature clubs — “whatever they were coming in for in the first place,” he said. There are also economic development opportunities to work with businesses making the gear like bicycles, shoes, kayaks and other equipment that’s being used in the parks.

“This has created a unique opportunity for us to talk on that level,” he said.

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