April 2, 2020
Mr. David Vela
National Park Service
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240
Dear Acting Director Vela:
I am writing to you on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) to express our ongoing concerns about the many units of the National Park System remain open to the public today as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across this Nation.
First, we applaud yesterday’s decision by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of the Interior (Department) to finally close Grand Canyon National Park to visitors after weeks of indecision and inaction. As the saying goes, better late than never.
The NPS announcement about the Grand Canyon closure said, “…the health and safety of park visitors, employees, residents, volunteers, and partners at Grand Canyon National Park is the Service’s number one priority.” However, most news reports regarding the closure credit pressure from Congressmen and local public health officials as the reason the Department and NPS finally allowed the acting superintendent to close the park. As we have said in prior correspondence, decisions regarding closures and restrictions to protect employee and public health within units of the National Park System are a federal responsibility under the jurisdiction of the Department and the NPS.
In brief, actions speak louder than words. Rather than wait for outside pressure before you close a park during this unprecedented pandemic, we ask that NPS demonstrate authentic concern for its employees and the public by closing the dozens of other parks that remain open today. Closing parks until the pandemic subsides is the only rationale response by NPS at this time for limiting the spread of the virus due to human interactions at park sites.
While NPS has not yet published its March 2020 visitation statistics, undoubtedly the Park System received hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of park visitors from untold locations in March during the accelerating spread of the virus across the United States. We have read that there have been at least seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 among NPS employees. There are likely many more as yet unconfirmed cases of the highly contagious illness spreading among the park employee population across the country.
Many municipalities and states are actively tracking the spread of the disease within their respective jurisdictions and appropriately notifying the public of such information. Such notification is critical for informing the public just how quickly the virus can spread and how serious the pandemic has become. It also helps the public understand why necessary and appropriate restrictions have been imposed by “those in charge” of an area or jurisdiction. Similarly, park visitors from around the country, citizens in gateway communities, and the Park Service community in general deserve to know and would benefit by knowing of the growing incidence of COVID-19 among the NPS employee population.
We hereby request that NPS begin tracking and reporting on a daily basis the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by park on the NPS public health website (https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/news/public-health-update.htm). Obviously, the identity of employee(s) should not be disclosed; however, we urge you to notify the public of the number of confirmed cases for each park so that the spread of the virus across the National Park System is transparent and the public is appropriately informed.
In closing, these are challenging times that require strong leadership and bold action. If you truly believe that the safety of park visitors and employees is the service’s “number one priority” (as stated in the Grand Canyon press release), then we plead with you to close the remaining parks NOW, so that our many friends and colleagues who still work for this wonderful agency are not unnecessarily compromised and exposed to this horrible virus as it spreads across the land.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks