RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Park trails and greenways were our sanctuaries during the pandemic. They were one of the few places we could safely go to get out of the house for fresh air.
Here in the heart of North Carolina, we are blessed with not only many miles of greenways but abundant state parks as well.
At the start of the COVID-19 onslaught, however, state parks went into a full shutdown.
"It was a really difficult time because not only were we trying to protect visitors but we're also trying to protect staff," said Jay Greenwood, the South District Superintendent for state parks.
Greenwood said once park staffers were able to secure PPE or personal protective equipment, parks were able to reopen.
But while the trails were available for hiking, running, and biking, many of the other amenities weren't.
Despite that, people flocked to the parks Greenwood recalled saying, "We saw a huge increase of visitation because people are having to be isolated at home."
Jordan Lake, one of the parks in Greenwood's district and one of the largest in the state system, was swamped with visitors even though, like every other state park, any areas where people could gather together like beaches, and boat ramps, remained closed until the restrictions loosened.
"Every step of the way whatever the governor had changed the proclamations to, the orders, is we've changed how we've addressed this," Greenwood said, "So we've opened up slowly more and more facilities throughout the state."
And now that the governor has allowed outdoor gatherings of up to 100 and indoor gatherings up to 50, this is the first full week that all areas of North Carolina State Parks have been able to fully open except where there's been flooding from recent storms.
State parks staff were ready according to Greenwood who said, "Everybody's in pretty good practice now and we're as prepared as we can be for this summer."
But state park officials want you to be prepared as well. As the weather continues to improve. visitors should expect record-breaking cabin fever crowds.
"So please be patient and expect to run into a lot of crowds when you enter state parks this year," Greenwood said.
Park officials are also asking for visitors to do one more thing - follow pandemic rules still in place like mask-wearing and social distancing.
"We don't have the amount of staff to enforce all these things. But we do expect for folks to have that personal responsibility to look out for each other as well as our staff," Greenwood said.
He added that full parks will be a welcome sight and a sign of a turn toward normalcy. But until the pandemic is truly over, park visitors need to enjoy nature carefully.