National, state parks brace for coronavirus

TRI-COUNTY — As concerns over the coronavirus arrive in the Big Bend just in time for spring break, workers at state and national parks are taking precautions and watching their visitor numbers decline.

“We’ve seen lower numbers than other years,” Manuela Cataño, superintendent of the Fort Leaton State Historic Site at Big Bend Ranch State Park, said of her visitor numbers. She couldn’t immediately provide statistics on visitations but said that visits were down.

The historic site is also taking other precautions, she said. Exhibitions and tours are closed. And while visitors can still explore inside parts of the historic site, they’re being funneled in one person or one group at a time.

For now, at least, Cataño said she felt good with the new measures.

“It’s working pretty well,” she said. “We’re taking the advice that’s being sent to us from headquarters.”

Nathanael Gold, superintendent of Big Bend Ranch State Park, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson for the park’s parent agency, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, said that staff in parks across the state were taking extra precautions — including making sure soap and hand sanitizer are available in all buildings and regularly cleaning surfaces. Anyone who has a camping or day-use reservation at a Texas park for March or April can also cancel without penalty by calling 512-389-8900.

Across the state, TPWD has so far closed two parks: the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson. The Sea Center is in Brazoria County, which officials say has seen community spread of coronavirus.

The TPWD spokesperson said the parks had closed in part because they saw “large public gatherings in closed quarters” but declined to comment when asked whether other state parks could close.

“I couldn’t speculate as to what the future holds,” she said. “We’re doing our best to make sure we’re using the latest recommendations.”

Big Bend National Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to a statement posted on its website, all visitors centers at the park are closed, whereas park gates, trails, roads, campgrounds and the Lodge are still open.

Several National Park Service locations have closed so far, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, which is currently under mandatory lockdown, and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Across all its parks, the National Park Service is asking visitors to take standard precautions against coronavirus, including avoiding touching the face and washing their hands and disinfecting surfaces regularly.