Six Feet Apart at Arches: Observing Social Distancing at a Busy National Park

While COVID-19 brewed over the summer of 2020, venues like schools, sports stadiums and theme parks shuttered their doors. Going stir-crazy at home, people desperate for fresh air and exercise headed outside to parks and protected areas for a change of scenery. This practice was promoted by state and national officials as a comparatively safe activity during the pandemic. But managers at national parks, where crowding and congestion were already a perennial problem, wondered if social distancing could be possible in places with established rules and infrastructure designed to concentrate human use in order to protect natural resources.

In newly published research, Zach Miller and Wayne Freimund, from Utah State University’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism in S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, along with other colleagues, observed crowds outside the visitor center at Arches National Park. From his home base at the USU Moab campus, Freimund observed the need to better understand how the record-setting number of people coming to a park during a pandemic year were moving through these locations.

They used motion sensor cameras to record the number of groups, the group size, how many individuals wore masks and how many encounters within six feet individuals had with others outside their group. They found that while just over 60 percent of visitors coming through the visitor center area wore masks, most groups were able to experience the visitor center without buzzing too close to other visitors. As group size increased, though, the chance of non-socially-distant run-ins with outsiders went up too. The presence of more groups also increased the chance of an interaction.

In places where they could be socially distant, the researchers found, people were taking advantage of the opportunity. While circumstances in parks and protected areas might not always be ideal for social distancing, Miller said, there are ways to reduce the risk based on what he observed: “Send as few people as possible into an area,” he said. This may mean that everyone waits in the car while one person runs to the bathroom or grabs a map.

This kind of information can help both managers and visitors know a little more about what to expect during a less-than-average year. But the research team is looking to help national parks understand other numbers too. Basic tasks like tracking how many people walk a trail, and how crowded a space feels, are still difficult for park managers to calibrate. Miller and Freimund are finding ways to answer these basic questions about crowding and trail use and are looking for ways to apply what they’ve learned to other national parks.

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