Crowds fill Stony Creek Metropark’s Eastwood Beach Aug. 22.

Crowds fill Stony Creek Metropark’s Eastwood Beach Aug. 22.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Parks see increase in visitors, wrestle to keep people safe during COVID-19

Parks manage crowds, litter, increased use

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published August 25, 2020

METRO DETROIT — Whether to seek refuge from quarantine, joblessness or the inability to travel, Michiganders have flocked to parks to keep themselves healthy, both physically and mentally.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, parks and metroparks across the state have been exploding in popularity. Parks officials say they have never faced a bigger challenge than delivering outdoor recreation during this global pandemic.

Rochester Hills Parks and Natural Resources
Rochester Hills saw a 300% increase in park attendance in March alone, according to Parks and Natural Resources Director Ken Elwert.

From the beginning of the year until June, Elwert said total park visits are up about 25%.

“That’s pretty significant when you consider we produce over a million visits a year in our park system, but, No. 2, things were shut down — there weren’t sports games happening, there weren’t any other larger group things happening — so that 25% is smaller groups coming to the park,” he said.

While the city’s nearly 1,000-acre parks system — which includes four regional parks and a number of smaller neighborhood parks and trailheads — remained open to the public through the pandemic, Elwert said the city temporarily closed down certain areas, per Oakland County health orders.

“We’re about 80% reopened,” Elwert said. “The Van Hoosen Museum typically does interior rentals, and we aren’t running any of those; we can run groups of up to 100 people in the pavilions, but sometimes people want more than that, and we don’t allow that; and we aren’t allowing many special events — races or things like that.”

At one of the city’s larger-volume attractions, Spencer Park, parks staff have had to turn people away due to social distancing requirements.

“The beach — or lake there — is open, but we’re open at about 40% of the total park capacity. We’re only allowing 100 people on the beach at a time,” Elwert explained. “We’ll get 1,000 people that will want to come to that park on a hot weekend day, so a couple of times a year, we would normally have to not allow people into that park.”

With the steady crowds, the volume of work for park staff has increased.

“Parks workers in general, around the nation and of course our crew, have been working their tails off since March. They have been on the grounds, not at home, cleaning the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, doing all this consistently the whole time,” Elwert said. “Opening and closing of various areas has increased the workload quite a bit, too, when you fence all the pavilions and take the picnic tables out, and close the playgrounds and re-open them, and such,” he said.

Complaints from park users on COVID-19 restrictions roll in weekly and daily, according to Elwert.

“There are certainly people who think we are being too strict and people that think we’re not enforcing strong enough,” he said. “We’re focusing on areas that we specifically rent, like our ball fields or areas like that. We require groups that essentially rent the fields to give us their operations plan ahead of time and expect them to follow it, or we may shut them down.”

Although trash volume has also increased, Elwert said people are being respectful of the greenspaces.

“The trash barrels are quite a bit more full, to the point where we’re picking them up a bit more, but I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary from increased usage. I think people here are being fairly respectful. If they have their masks, they throw them in the trash. There hasn’t been a dramatic shift on unbarreled trash,” he said.

Elwert encourages city residents to keep visiting the parks throughout fall and winter.

“It’s very clear that parks are doing their job. They’re helping people get out and maintain their sanity. Just be respectful of others. We haven’t had any major problems or conflicts because of this, and I hope that will continue for the future.”

Huron Clinton Metroparks
The Huron Clinton Metroparks have been able to keep all 13 of their metroparks open throughout the pandemic, although Chief of Marketing and Communications Danielle Mauter said operations have widely changed.

“We are being very diligent at keeping track of the executive orders and the recommendations that are coming out at the state and federal levels to make sure our operations are adhering to all of that. … We are trying to remain flexible so we can keep the parks open and available for people to get out of their house and experience the outdoors, while still keeping people safe,” she said.

The metropark system has seen a large uptick in attendance this year.

“Our vehicle counts are up right around 30.8% right now, year to date, so we are seeing more people out in the parks on a regular basis,” Mauter said.

In terms of monthly numbers, Lake St. Clair Metropark saw 84,084 vehicles in July; Stony Creek Metropark saw 118,964; Indian Springs Metropark saw 14,695; Kensington Metropark saw 132,787; and Lake Erie Metropark saw 28,969, to name a few.

Daily park pass sales are also skyrocketing, by 16.7% year to date.

“What we are seeing is that our annual pass users are using their annual passes more times; they’re visiting more often,” Mauter explained.

More crowds means operating some facilities a little differently than in the past.

“Some of our pools are not open, and we have kept some indoor facilities closed. At the pools that are open ... our capacity is lower, so each timed session is capacity limited to approximately 80 swimmers, and in between each session, we are conducting a cleaning in the pools themselves. We’ve also removed the pool furniture from the decks,” Mauter explained. “We’re taking some added precautions and operating a little differently than we typically would.”

So far, park visitors have been “pretty good” about adhering to COVID restrictions, according to Mauter.

“Occasionally, we’ll have an issue where crowds of people are gathering that maybe shouldn’t be, but that circumstance is actually few and far between. I’ve been really impressed at the number of visitors who are practicing social distancing, who are adhering to the COVID precautions,” she said.

Still, parks staff are often fielding visitor concerns about the lack of mask usage on the trails.

“We do occasionally see people wearing masks on the trail, but sometimes people do not wear masks on the trails. Masks are not required in the outdoor spaces, so we don’t enforce that masks must be worn, unless they are in indoor space. You should be wearing them if you are coming in within 6 feet of a person, so in those cases, we do ask crowds to spread apart and remind them to practice social distancing,” Mauter said.

More people in the parks means more staff hours in the metropark budget.

“We do see more trash on our busier days, so our maintenance staff is picking up the trash every night and every morning. We are staying on top of it,” Mauter said. “But it never hurts to remind visitors to take care of our greenspaces.”

Oakland County Parks and Recreation
Oakland County parks have also seen a rise in park attendance since the spring, according to officials. In March, the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department waived entry fees for all county parks — a program it continued until June 1 — inviting residents and other guests to enjoy park entry at no cost.

“Our visitor numbers have increased three-fold for this time of year based on car counts,” Parks Executive Officer Dan Stencil said in a statement. “It’s obvious people are enjoying a place to stretch their legs and get outdoors with their immediate family. And we have observed that our guests are taking the call to social distancing seriously.”

Oakland County’s parks system covers 7,000 acres of land over 13 different parks — which include two waterparks, two campgrounds, three dog parks, five golf courses and various day-use spaces. The parks system has 80 miles trails for walking, hiking, mountain biking and equestrian riding.

Although the county’s parks have stayed open, some park features — such as the county’s two water parks — remain closed due to COVID-19.

“The months all seem to blend together. In April, we closed off some parking lots and we manned the contact station, allowing a certain number of people to come in and come out, but the visitors have been steady since July,” said Sue Wells, the manager of parks and recreation operation.

The county’s campgrounds and golf courses have been full, Wells said, adding that trail usage is drastically up.

“We’ve had a lot of walkers out at our parks. In the beginning, there were some little conflicts, but they were very, very small. People were starting to learn how to social distance, and they were learning how to walk as a group or individually. Right now, I would say people have been very respectful on the trails,” she said. “We’ve probably had some more user conflicts than we usually do — your bikers versus your walkers versus your dog walkers — because so many people want to get out and enjoy it. It’s managing those. You always, no matter what you do, will have those conflicts.”

As more cars — and people — flock to the county’s parks, so does trash.

“With more people, you see more litter — wherever you’re at — which we’ve addressed, since there is a constant flow of new people in the park,”  Wells said.

She anticipates park attendance to remain steady this fall.

“In the fall, our day-use parks are very busy because of the fall colors and so on. Our recreation program division has also been able to put on programs with social distancing at our nature centers and at our day use parks, so even though the sizes are limited to those programs, we’re going to continue to do those,” she said.

Engaging in any type of physical activity regularly, including exercising for both physical and mental health, may be beneficial in protecting the body and limiting the damage caused by COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials said exposure to nature also has positive physical and mental health benefits, including lower rates of heart disease, stroke, obesity, stress and depression.

For more information on the Huron Clinton Metroparks, visit or call (810) 227-2757. For more information on Oakland County Parks and Recreation, visit or call (248) 858-0906. For more information on Rochester Hills Parks and Naturals Resources, visit or call (248) 656-4673.