State parks and most other sites managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will reopen to the public starting Friday, May 29th.
At the beginning of May, IDNR opened certain state parks to the public, in what it called a phased reopening. These facilities needed to have certain amenities, specifically flushable toilets and handwashing facilities with sinks. Park staff monitored visitors at these sites, and IDNR Director Colleen Callahan said the results were encouraging.
“Lots of cars in parking lots, but I didn’t see a lot of people. And that was good. It meant they came and then they scattered. They went to hike. They went to bike. At that time, they went to go mushrooming.”
Starting May 29th, camping and concession services will be opened up at those sites. In addition, parks that were still closed will be reopened, with certain social distancing guidelines. Callahan said some of those pertain to group activities.
"Making sure that when you use a restroom or a shower facility that you’re not standing in a line. Make sure that you’re going with a family unit, those that you arrived with. The camping will also mean that as you arrived for that campsite that that will be the group that you stay with. Your campfire will be your campfire.”
She said others are more general in nature, and signs will be in place that will describe what to do. Callahan said she hopes the public can act as partners in these measures, even though they may strike people as atypical for a park visit.
“It is unnatural for us to visit one of our parks with a mask quickly at hand. It is unnatural for us to stay six feet away from each other. It is unnatural to make sure that you have a hand-sized hand sanitizer in your pocket in case you need it,” said Callahan.
While a mask may not be necessary for individuals out on the trail, Callahan said having one when getting close to others could help prevent community spread, and having hand sanitizer can help people clean their hands when there isn’t a readily available source of water.
These guidelines will be monitored by park staff, “Friends of the Park” groups, and Illinois Conservation Police. Callahan said some areas within parks will remain closed due to social distancing requirements.
“The indoor facilities such as a visitors center or a historic site that is indoors will be closed," she said. "And also the shelters, because that’s where people gather.”
And Callahan hopes the same partnership with visitors regarding COVID-19 measures can also be kept in mind when it comes to general safety.
“We’ll be doing that just as we always have done, and then ask again in this partnership to be mindful of not going in areas that are marked where you shouldn’t go. Don’t go on trails that are marked off. Don’t go to a rock area that say, 'Eh, it looks okay to me, it probably is alright.' No. When in doubt, don’t."
And then there are closures due to demand. Callahan said IDNR will continue to exercise its normal crowd control methods. These include limiting entry if there’s a spike in visitors, or temporary closures due to weather-related events such as flooding. This may affect openings at parks with high demand.
“We’ve certainly had weather that has generated a great deal of rainfall and Starved Rock is not immune to flooding," said Callahan. "It’s like a magnet because of its location and the Illinois River and the tributaries."
Callahan said there was one upside to the closure. It gave park staff the opportunity to carry out maintenance that wouldn’t have been possible or as easy to do with regular crowds, such as repairing wear on old trails, or clearing debris without disrupting visitor flow.
"I believe that when people get back to visit their park and we say 'Welcome home' and 'Welcome back,' they’ll notice that we’ve been paying attention to the details of what maybe we weren’t able to get done previously -- and had the time and the space and the capacity to get done.”
Parks are set to reopen on May 29th as the state begins Phase 3 of its Restore Illinois plan for COVID-19. IDNR will in turn post guidelines for visitors online and on signage at parks around Illinois.