State parks close, but Villagers have options

Buck and Libby Broughton, of the Village of McClure, take advantage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline to avoid crowds and look for wildlife at the Fenney Nature Trail on Thursday.

The Department of Environmental Protection moved Sunday night to close Florida’s state parks beginning Monday. Villagers, however, still have access to outdoor facilities that allow activities with plenty of room to maintain an appropriate distance from others. DEP took the action because, despite shorter operating hours and reducing capacity, some visitors to the state facilities still were violating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing. State parks near The Villages include Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park and Silver Springs State Park, home of the glass-bottom boats. “DEP has taken many measures to continue providing resource recreation at our state parks during this time, such as limiting operating hours and reducing visitor capacity at parks with high visitation. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the reductions needed to best protect public health and safety as Florida continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” a statement released by the department said.

“We appreciate your cooperation and understanding as we work to prioritize the welfare of our communities and staff. We look forward to welcoming you again to our award-winning state parks as soon as possible.”

The closure came as no surprise to Mark Knapke, park manager at Lake Griffin State Park. He said he’d seen a slight uptick in visitors over the past week, likely those exploring options for activity with other choices off-limits.

Knapke said his employees still are reporting to work and they’ll work on maintenance projects, keeping safe distances from one another while performing their tasks.

Villagers have several choices if they want to get a taste of nature. The Sharon Rose Wiechens Preserve, Fenney Springs Nature Trail and Hogeye Preserve Pathway all offer up-close views of flora and fauna with plenty of room for social distancing. All the facilities can be easily walked and can boast beautiful photo-taking opportunities.

The Wiechens Preserve in particular has a variety of birds — sandhill cranes, American coots and even bald eagles — that can be spotted from within its boundaries.

George and Edna Henning, of the Village of Lake Deaton, are among those who recently visited Wiechens. George walks 5 miles a day with a buddy — “we stay 6 feet apart,” he said — but Edna’s usual activities are more indoor-focused. She’s in book clubs, plays bridge and is in a few church groups. With those activities on hold, the Hennings sought something they could do together and visited Wiechens Preserve.

“We’re filling the day,” Edna said. “We do an activity a day to get outside.”

The Hennings did say the quarantine has brought them closer to their family.

“It’s nice our children are calling and it’s not even our birthday or Christmas,” Edna said. “Our kids are happy we’re in The Villages — they feel we’re safe here.”

For Buck and Libby Broughton, of the Village of McClure, they’re getting out more than they did before the crisis began. “This virus isn’t slowing us down at all,” Buck said. They ride their bicycles along Hogeye Preserve Pathway in the morning, then hike the Fenney Trail later in the day.

“We see otters, sometimes an alligator or an owl,” Buck said.

The walkways at The Villages’ nature areas can provide an opportunity to get away from sources of stress.

“It’s beautiful,” said Sandy Cherry, of the Village of Fenney, who walked the boardwalk at Wiechens with her husband, Ron, on Monday. “Just serene and calm, with everything going on.”

As far as maintaining a safe interval from others, Sandy said: “Everybody’s keeping their distance, but they’re friendly.”

And keeping a safe distance is the key regardless of which park is on the agenda. Keep the CDC guidelines in mind. If there are several people on a walkway or platform, give them some space as you wait for a space.

“We recommend you be careful,” said Scott Grimes, recreation facilities manager of Rohan Recreation Center.

Go to www.districtgov.org for preserve and trail locations.

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.