For the Wright County Parks & Recreation Department, this weekend will be a “better late than never” scenario. The county’s two park campgrounds – in Collinwood and Schroeder Parks – were supposed to open the first weekend in May. The campgrounds finally opened Monday, June 1, and Parks & Rec staff is looking forward to have its first full weekend of camping activity.
Wright County Parks & Recreation Director Marc Mattice said that, while the campgrounds are open, there are still some tight restrictions that remain.
“With the guidance that came out for camping, one of the challenges we had was that we had to verify distancing between campsites,” Mattice said. “We had to move some people around the campground. At Schroeder Park, we had two campsites that didn’t meet the social distancing guidelines of 50 feet between sites unless there is a vegetation buffer. We don’t have any of those. We’ve have to close off some sites and adjust some people around to be able to have as many sites open while meeting the guidelines put forth by the state.”
Because the state’s stay at home order was in place throughout most of May, Mattice and his staff have been adjusting their operations plan accordingly – taking into account a full opening, a limited opening or a continued closure.
Mattice said his staff has been ready to go for more than month, but just needed the green light to open.
“We’ve been prepared to open since the beginning of May,” Mattice said. “All we were waiting on was getting the go-ahead to open. We had contingency plans in place to be ready if we weren’t allowed to open at all or open on a limited basis. We’re just glad to see people coming back to the parks.”
Although the campgrounds are open, they aren’t open as they typically have been. There are still challenges because the campground offices, which have a supply of sodas and snacks will remain closed. Much like restaurants, if campers need fire or ice, they will get curbside (or campside) delivery.
“The biggest challenge will be our campground offices,” Mattice said. “We won’t have those open to the public. People are asked to come in and go to their site and our campground manager will walk around, check people in for a distance. We’ll have a phone number on the door. From their campsite, people can order firewood and ice before 4 p.m. on any day and the campground manager will deliver it to their site.”
The closure of county campgrounds has come with a cost. Mattice estimated that Parks & Recreation lost $40,000 in campground revenue in May alone. To try to offset those costs, Parks & Recreation has reduced its seasonal staff by two employees, greatly reduced seasonal hours during May and realized cost savings by shutting down the electricity while the campgrounds were closed.
Like many business operations, there are those who have asked that Mattice and his staff defy the state order to keep campgrounds closed through May. But, he added that most have understood why the campgrounds needed to remain closed and he has kept those with reservations informed as to the Park & Rec plans.
“We’ve had some people who are angry and just want us to open the campgrounds earlier than allowed, but with the county board adopting our operational plan early on in the pandemic, the word has got out to people and most understand this wasn’t our choice,” Mattice said. “People knew what we were doing ahead of time and most understood that we couldn’t open until the governor’s restrictions were lifted or loosened up.”
Although we are still a long way from return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy, Mattice said opening the campgrounds will be a good first step for those who use the county parks facilities. Many of the campers are regulars who have reserved the same sites for the same time period year after year. For those, it will be a nice break from the difficulties COVID-19 has brought to the daily lives of so many.
“We’ve already had people coming in, but it’s really going to pick up this weekend,” Mattice said. “We’ve got some happy people who love to camp coming in. For a lot of them, with all that has gone on with COVID-19, it’s good for their mental health to get outside, go camping and return to some kind of normal. That’s nice to see.”