A call to #RecreateResponsibly guides reopening of King County’s parks and trails, and encourages ways to enjoy the outdoors safely

King County moved into Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start plan on June 19. For the Parks Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP), going through these phases has meant taking steps to encourage new habits while re-opening its parks and trails following the COVID-19 closures. As it re-opens, King County Parks has put several measures in place, including on-site signs, recreation policies, and operational adjustments. Parks is also part of the Recreate Responsibly Coalition, a statewide group that has come together during the pandemic to educate the public about the new rules of recreating during the coronavirus.

Frana Milan, who has been with King County since 2007 and currently supervises Parks’ Communications Team, shared about this work and the efforts to keep all County residents safe when enjoying the outdoors. “Our role has been to help make sense of what is happening, and how these different COVID-19 guidelines handed down by the State affect activities in parks and on trails,” she said.

Parks has been dealing with COVID-related issues since February, but made the tough decision on March 25 to suspend or postpone all events. They also closed all parks, trails, restrooms, trailheads, and indoor facilities at that time to align with the Governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

She explains that as the pandemic has evolved, public health guidance started adjusting, so that in the beginning of May, the division was able to re-open some parts of its system.

“We tried to communicate certain measures a person should take when going to a park or trail to walk around,” Frana said. “There are ways to recreate responsibly in this time of COVID-19.”

“When the stay-at-home order was put in place, the directive was to stay at home and keep your exercise and outdoor activities close to home, but this highlighted some of the deficiencies we struggle with every day. What if you live in an area where you don’t have access to parks and trails?” Frana said. “These challenges are things we need to tackle today and in the future as a parks agency.”

It was during this time, when land managers across the state were struggling to communicate about the effects of the pandemic on recreation, that a great opportunity came about. Community partner organizations and land managers like Parks came together with outdoor retailer REI in a coalition, titled Recreate Responsibly, to deliver accurate, safe messaging about the new realities of enjoying the outdoors in the time of COVID-19. This guidance was developed and released to the public in time for Memorial Day weekend, allowing all of the groups in the coalition to push out a single, strong message.

“The coalition includes all of the organizations and agencies that represent key constituencies in the outdoor recreation world,” said Frana. “Lots of people have been involved in that work, and it has mobilized quickly to clarify and reinforce these new ways of recreating.”

The seven main points of the Recreate Responsibly Coalition are below. Consider saving the image for future reference.

  1. Know Before You Go: Check the status of the place you want to visit. If it is closed, don’t go. If it’s crowded, have a back-up plan.
  2. Plan Ahead: Prepare for facilities to be closed, pack a lunch and bring essentials like hand sanitizer and a face covering.
  3. Explore Locally: Limit long distance travel and make use of local parks, trails, and public spaces. Be mindful of your impact on the communities you visit.
  4. Practice Physical Distancing: Keep your group size small. Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth and give others space. If you are sick, stay home.
  5. Play It Safe: Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury. Search and rescue operations and health care resources are both strained.
  6. Leave No Trace: Respect public lands and water, as well as Native and local communities. Take all your garbage with you.
  7. Build an Inclusive Outdoors: Be an active part of making the outdoors safe and welcoming for all identities and abilities.

Frana notes that it can be a challenge to reinforce these new guidelines, but it is important for the public to abide by these tips. This is especially important right now, since Parks is balancing a limited workforce capacity and new, additional safety protocols while trying to ramp up for the busy season. Parks usually hires seasonal employees starting in March. Not only was seasonal hiring delayed this year, but the division can only bring on a fraction of its normal seasonal staff due to COVID.

“We are hoping to change people’s habits, but it can be a struggle. We simply have to continue reminding people that things are different,” Frana said. “There are a variety of land management agencies, like our own, that are in similar situations with lower levels of seasonal staff, so we are unable to do tasks, like mow the grass, at the same frequency.”

“We are asking people to be aware of this, and when they are enjoying the outdoors, to only bring what they need, not expect everything to be open, and take their garbage with them. And remember that only small gatherings are permitted at this time – if a large group drops in to use a picnic shelter, for example, it creates a challenge for our employees. They can’t do their job taking care of that area of the park if physical distancing can’t be maintained.”

Closed parks reinforced for many the importance of access to nature and the benefits of public lands. It also emphasized the essential nature of this work, and Parks employees as essential workers.

“During the stay-at-home order, our staff continued to take care of lands in our stewardship, making sure our parks and trails would be ready when people could start enjoying them again,” Frana said.

As Parks turns the dial on re-opening its facilities, it will continue to rely on the public to do their part to recreate responsibly. Frana adds how residents can get involved, “People can use our SeeClickFix app to report an issue in our parks or trails. During this time, the tool is a way for share if there is crowding or congestion going on,” Frana said.

To learn more about the Recreate Responsibly Coalition, visit www.recreateresponsibly.org. To learn more about what’s open and how Parks is responding to the pandemic, visit Parks’ COVID-19 response page.