Recreation goes on in spite of pandemic

Donna Burnham, of Ocala, kayaks with her 5-year-old Chihuahua mix, Jose, while Jordan Parker, left, visiting from South Carolina, and Deitra Bardon, of Ocala, tag along at Silver Springs State Park.

Some hikers are navigating state park trails in face masks. Guided paddling trips are on hold because of social distancing. And parks that halved their capacity to limit attendance are closing their doors much earlier than they used to. With the cloud of COVID-19 continuing to hang over outdoor recreation, July 2020 may have proven the oddest National Parks and Recreation Month. But it hasn’t stopped people from enjoying the outdoors. Outdoor-based group activities, like pickleball, are still going strong in The Villages. People continue to visit the community’s parks and preserves for fresh air and a view of the region’s flora and fauna.

At Florida state parks just outside The Villages, activities including hiking and paddling have proven favorable for social distancing.

Parks of all kinds are valuable during a pandemic because they provide opportunities for staying healthy and active when gyms and fitness centers are closed, said Roxanne Sutton, spokeswoman for the National Recreation and Park Association.

“They’ve always been a benefit, but people are recognizing it in ways we haven’t before,” she said. “During this time people see that they may have taken for granted going to a restaurant or a gym, but the parks are still available.”

The ability to break from the monotony of the suburban landscape is part of what makes parks appealing, said Mike Tamburrino, a member of The Villages Hiking Group and vice chair of the Highlanders chapter of the Florida Trail Association.

And the natural setting of many parks offer people a chance to explore Old Florida, he said.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie and social interaction, there’s low-impact exercise, and there’s a lot of places where, if you never searched for them, you’d never know they’re there,” said Tamburrino, of the Village of Gilchrist.

Interest increased in parks with nature and hiking trails because of gym closures during the pandemic, Sutton said.

Gyms were allowed to reopen under phase 2 of the state’s reopening strategy. MVP Athletic Club remains open, but last week The Villages Community Development Districts closed fitness clubs at recreation centers because of a statewide rise in COVID-19 cases.

At Lake Griffin State Park, the state park closest to The Villages, attendance saw a boost this summer.

Many visitors were looking for something to do and to see the outdoors while other forms of recreation, like theme parks, were either closed for business or open in a limited capacity, Park Manager Mark Knapke said.

“Most parks are the real Florida, because they have a completely natural environment with special features,” he said. “It attracts people all the time, maybe more so now.”

But greater precautions are being taken.

For instance, the popular guided paddle tours offered from the fall to the spring are on hold for now, and kayak rentals are only available four days a week — 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays — to allow time for staff to sanitize the rental kayaks, Knapke said.

Staff is working to offer the rentals daily in the near future, he added.

Andy Kilmer, park services specialist at Silver Springs State Park, said he noticed some hikers and paddlers wore face masks as an additional layer of protection.

However, not everyone has been wearing face masks while visiting parks.

Florida State Parks’ website stated that parks will follow local orders requiring face coverings, but these requirements vary by the area.

“People don’t even think about it, they ask us if they should be wearing masks,” Kilmer said. “And I say, if you think you should be wearing them, it kind of answers your own question.”

While not all parks are requiring face masks, others are limiting their capacity.

At Silver Springs, the number of people who can board one of its iconic glass-bottom boats for a guided tour of the springs was halved to promote social distancing, Kilmer said.

Some people are choosing not to take the boat trips now because of discomfort in enclosed spaces, he said.

But Silver Springs appears to be experiencing greater interest for this time of year, something Kilmer thinks is partly because of other parks limiting capacity.

Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, for instance, has very high visitation in the summer months for its tubing opportunities.

The park’s current hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but the park closes to everyone but registered campers when it reaches maximum capacity.

On a recent Saturday, “they had to shut their gates at 9:45 a.m.,” Kilmer said.

Knapke and Kilmer think part of the reason why they’re seeing people come to parks is because they’re seeking an escape.

“Some people are stuck inside in close quarters, and all these other traditional outlets (of activity) are closed,” Kilmer said. “Our public lands are a refuge where we can take a walk, get some exercise and let off steam.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.