British Columbia

Clearwater mayor raises concerns around provincial parks reopening

With many provincial parks now open for day use, the mayor of Clearwater, B.C., near Wells Gray Provincial Park, is concerned physical distancing and sanitation and the possibility of outsiders bringing COVID-19 to his community.

Worries contact tracing would be impossible in the event of outbreak in park

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who has also worked for years at Wells Gray Provincial Park, is worried about visitors bringing COVID-19 to his community near the park. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Many provincial parks are now open for day-use in British Columbia, but the mayor of Clearwater, B.C., near Wells Gray Provincial Park, is concerned about the ability of parks staff to enforce physical distancing and sanitation and the possibility of outsiders bringing COVID-19 to his community. 

Hundreds of people could be touching surfaces throughout the park, like washrooms and picnic areas, which could complicate contact tracing if an outbreak were to occur in a provincial park, according to Mayor Merlin Blackwell. 

"There's really no way to control day-use within Wells Gray Park," Blackwell told Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce. Blackwell has previously worked in park operations at Wells Gray for 30 years, and still occasionally consults with park operators.

"You really have no way of knowing who's been here and how many people are there at one time or another."

Environment Minister George Heyman said all of the provincial parks that are opening this week have the equipment, staff and capacity to ensure sanitation and safe physical distancing. 

"There are some parks we're not yet opening because we've experienced that they either don't have enough space on trails for people to pass safely, socially distancing, or there have been significant large numbers of people before we closed the parks ... essentially a health and safety hazard," Heyman said. 

"We've been selective and we'll be monitoring."

Though Heyman isn't anticipating crowds at provincial parks over the long weekend, he said that if there are reports of chaos he will consider closing individual parks down if necessary. 

Locals only?

Blackwell suggests making park access only available to locals — for instance, only allowing people who live within the Thompson Nicola Regional District to access Wells Gray Provincial Park. 

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has advised British Columbians to keep park visits and activities over the long weekend within their own communities, advice echoed by Heyman.

Many provincial parks opened for day-use in B.C. as of May 14. Camping will open in some parks on June 1. (Wells Gray Park Information Centre/Facebook)

"To avoid areas getting overwhelmed, we're asking people to go to parks closest to their own community for starters, and avoid unnecessary non-essential travel," Heyman said.

Though the notion of only allowing B.C. residents in provincial parks has been raised with Heyman, he hasn't made any decisions on it, he said.

Concerns about rec sites, camping

B.C. Parks plans to allow camping in some parks as of June 1, but until they are day-use only. So are recreation sites and trails. 

Still, Blackwell worries some eager campers may head to the backcountry, which again raises concerns for him about people bringing COVID-19 into small, rural communities. 

Heyman said the government is asking people to avoid camping on Crown land for the time being. 

"We're concerned about that," Heyman said.

"We're allowing some day-use [in parks] because we know people need fresh air. They need to get out a little bit, because it's been hard on all of us. But I think British Columbians understand we want to protect ourselves and the progress we've made. We're all in this together."

With files from Daybreak Kamloops

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