CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Governor DeWine reminded people on Thursday that the best way to protect one another is to practice social distancing.
"When people are not continuing to practice social distancing, it is a problem," he said at his press briefing Thursday.
With nice weather expected Saturday, many people may be heading to Northeast Ohio parks to enjoy the outdoors. Those parks are urging people to follow social distancing guidelines and other rules to stay safe.
Since the pandemic began, the number of people visiting Cleveland Metroparks has increased significantly.
"We have seen record visitation," said Brian M. Zimmerman, CEO of the Metroparks. "Our parks have grown in visitation over 134%. We’ve seen people that I don’t know maybe even knew the Metroparks existed."
Cuyahoga Valley National Park has been crowded, too.
"Anecdotally, we’ve been seeing what we would describe as Fourth of July weekend," said Pamela Barnes, public information officer for CVNP. "The number of the visitors that we get has just been exponentially increasing, and that’s just by our observations alone. It really looks like a summer weekend out there, even in April."
Barnes said that "now, more than ever, we are seeing just how important parks are for people’s physical and mental well being. We’re really happy to see the number of people that are visiting parks, but then again, we’re a little nervous about seeing the number of people that are visiting parks."
The parks have put guidelines and rules in place to ensure people can have a safe visit.
"Rocky River [Reservation]’s a great example," Zimmerman said. "We closed half the parking lot. The nature center is closed and people would have used that, so we’re limiting the amount of people. We have worked very hard at the concept of 'pack in, pack out' [what you bring in to the park]. Bring a water bottle. We do have our portable restrooms open."
Zimmerman said some people are wearing masks when they visit. While that is allowed and encouraged, the Metroparks are not requiring people to wear masks.
He said in talking to park districts all over the country, "everybody’s kind of faced with the same challenges, because not a lot of options are available to people right now, but parks are one of those great things."
"We want to keep them open," Zimmerman said. "So if you can have some trail etiquette, take a step off the trail, take a further step if you need to. If there’s dogs on leash, slow up just a little bit, kids with strollers."
He urged people to "be kind to others" as they visit the parks and to "spread out to the best of your ability."
"For those that choose to be noncompliant, we do have our police force out there," Zimmerman said, noting that the force tries to give warnings but that there may be citations as well. "We’ve seen people just tear down the caution tape that’s around things and then just blatantly use them."
Zimmerman encouraged people to visit other, less-visited reservations within the Metroparks system, and to consider coming at a different time of day, such as early morning.
Barnes echoed that sentiment.
"Of course, stay home if you’re feeling sick, but think about being flexible, whether you could come during the week," Barnes said. "The morning on a weekday is a great time. You might even have the place to yourself. And if it’s raining, you’ll have a great time being socially distant."
She added, "If you come on a weekend, you can almost guarantee that it’ll be crowded if the weather’s nice, cause everyone else had the same idea as you."
Barnes urged visitors to Cuyahoga Valley National park to call the park's closure hotline at (440) 546-5960 before coming. Visitors will hear a recorded message, changed daily, of what's open and what's closed to help plan their trip.
For now, through this weekend and the coming weeks, the popular Brandywine Falls Boardwalk and Blue Hen Falls parking and viewing areas are closed.
"Be prepared when you come," Barnes said. "Be prepared for restrooms to be closed, bring a full bottle of water, be prepared for maybe not drinking water being available. If you go to a loop trail, hike that in a clockwise direction, and that’ll help you keep social distancing and so you’re not meeting people on the trail coming the other direction."
When passing someone on a trail, Barnes reminded people to tell the person you're coming and to pass on the left.
When areas are full, Barnes said, the park will close some parking lots. She encouraged visitors who see a full parking area to keep going and find another spot.
"We do appreciate being here as a resource for people, and you just have to make sure that you keep the other park visitor in mind," Barnes said. "When you’re passing someone, cleaning up after your pet. If it’s crowded, go somewhere else."
If everyone works together, both Barnes and Zimmerman said, parks will be able to stay open for all visitors.