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Parks remain open, beaches closed

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

Though not much else is, State Parks in Virginia will remain open at this time.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a Stay at Home executive order Monday, March 30, which is set to stay in effect until Wednesday, June 10. Though residents of Virginia are urged to stay at home except to carry out essential errands, outdoor activities are still permitted as long as social distancing rules are practiced.

Last weekend brought warm Spring temperatures to the New River Valley and Claytor Lake State Park saw an influx of visitors desiring to soak up the sunshine … especially at the park’s beach.

A little before noon Sunday, Tonya Chrisley came to the beach at Claytor Lake State Park with her daughter Kelsey, her son Elijah and family friend Steve Wendt. The beach was empty before their arrival, but that was not the case Saturday.

“There were a lot of big groups on the beach yesterday,” said Tonya. “The park ranger had to break up one group three different times. We kept our distance the best we could.”

“We had a really busy day Saturday,” said Claytor Lake State Park Manager Chris Doss. “We had a lot of college kids. We would tell people to spread out and break up the groups and people would do that. Then over time, probably out of habit, they would start congregating again. So it was a day-long battle to keep people separate. A lot of Virginia Tech and Radford University kids probably still had some rental time on their residences and so a lot of them have not gone home.”

Sunday saw warmer weather, as well and with the potential of another crowded beach looming, Doss decided to close the beach at Claytor Lake early that afternoon.

“We just don’t have the personnel to keep someone down there all day to maintain social distancing,” Doss explained.

By Monday afternoon, Doss’s decision was effectively echoed by the governor’s proclamation, as he effectively closed all beaches in the state by saying they could no longer be used for sunbathing or swimming.

Saturday’s crowd at Claytor Lake State Park’s beach was seen by many and many were highly critical of those who flaunted social distancing rules.

“Facebook opened up this epidemic page and everybody’s complaining about the college students,” said John Garrett, owner of Claytor Lake Water Sports, I don’t know why people would be angry at them, all of us do dumb stuff at that age.”

Garrett rents motor boats and paddle powered water craft from his shop at the park’s marina.

“We’ve only opened up in March one other time,” said Garrett. “This weather has made it great.”

Garrett’s peak season is normally between the Memorial and Labor Day Holidays, but this weekend brought him good business. Even so, he realizes the governor could shut down all state parks in short order if he was so inclined.

“I’m holding off on hiring my last two employees,” said Garrett. “I brought back two, hired another and then this broke out and I’m not going to hire until I know what to expect because any minute, I can be shut down if the state parks close.”

As is now common practice, Garrett makes sure all of his customers maintain a safe space between one another and disallows groups of 10 people to gather at his business. Still, he questioned some of the governor’s recent orders.

“You’ve heard the liquor stores are open,” said Garrett. “The governor called it a necessity. So liquor stores are a necessity but bathrooms in state parks are closed. I know it’s a tough decision being up there but bathrooms in state parks are far more important than a liquor store.”

“The biggest reason for that is to keep everyone from close proximity to one another in those bathrooms,” Doss explained. “Especially Saturday, there would have been a lot of people crowded into a closed space in those restrooms. So, we provided Porta Johns and our staff is actually sanitizing those throughout the day.”

Though the parks are open for day use, there are no restrooms, no camping and no public gatherings at Claytor Lake or any Virginia State Park.

“It’s hard for us as park rangers because we work for people and we want people to come and have a good time, but then we have to tell people to spread out,” said Doss. “It’s a different duty than we’re used to but things have changed and we have to do this to protect public safety.”

As per Virginia law, violating the governor’s emergency order forbidding groups larger than 10 to congregate, is a Class One misdemeanor. Violating a Class One misdemeanor, the most serious type of misdemeanor, is punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of $2,500, or both.

“The governor has given us some discretion to separate people,” said Doss. “Writing someone a ticket would be our last course of action. We expect to be very busy through the month of April but we’re going to keep making sure people keep social distancing and hopefully that virus will move on out of here and we get back to normal.”

“I pray it will be over soon,” said Tonya Chrisley. “I want to enjoy the summer and not be concerned about socializing with our friends and enjoying the weather.”

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