Shops and schools closed. The dining room table became the office. There was no baseball game, no Dollywood, no pilates. The church organ was silent.
When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered “safe at home” orders in spring, there was just one place where many people still gathered: At the park.
Record numbers of East Tennesseans escaped the monotony of quarantine by visiting parks more often and using them in new ways. That hasn’t stopped with cooler weather and filled classrooms. Local, state and national park managers say they’re seeing more visitors than ever before.
Parks have become not only a place to stay fit physically, but also mentally and emotionally. On a sunny Sunday morning, Terri McLean tried outdoor church for the first time at Knoxville’s Lakeshore Park. Beneath the trees, everyone clapped along as the banjo led a gospel band singing “Old Time Religion.”
“It’s just a freer feeling,” McLean said. “It’s relaxed, it is delightful to be in nature. Our parks are wonderful. I’m very grateful that we have them. And they provide us an outlet, when so many of our outlets have been cut out of our lives.”
Church services are a good example. While many church buildings remain closed, St. John’s Episcopal has been holding “Dog Church” at Lakeshore. The tradition started three summers ago, but this year it will continue through October because of COVID-19. On a recent Sunday, about 60 people spaced their folding chairs across a field wet with dew. Dogs barked friendly greetings. Birds circled overhead.
Other churches have taken turns holding services at Lakeshore in the evenings. But they aren’t the only ones who have shifted to the park. Book clubs, knitting circles, Bible studies, and work meetings settled into camp chairs at parks like Sequoyah Hills and Victor Ashe.
When the novel coronavirus first triggered widespread closures, local greenways became so clogged that a few regular walkers requested one-way foot traffic. But then people began to spill into open fields, says Sheryl Ely, parks and recreation director for Knoxville.
They ate picnics in the grass. Personal trainers met their clients in pavilions. Teenagers circled their cars, Ely said. “Then what they would do is stand or sit on top or the hood of the car, and then one would get in the middle and they would dance,” she said. “For me, it was good -- because they were social distancing, but they were using the park in a different way.”
When gyms closed, martial arts, strength training and yoga classes moved outside too. Many never went back. Sandhya Raghavan has been attending a strength class twice a week at Lakeshore Park.
“I used to go to the YMCA but I’m not comfortable going in and exercising with a mask, and this turned out to be amazing,” she said. “I’m loving it…. And it’s great to be outside, and I’m not afraid to be outside. And the best thing is, you don’t have to wear a mask!”
Early in the pandemic, some park facilities closed because of concerns about being able to disinfect bathrooms and playgrounds. Playgrounds in Knox County remain closed, but have reopened in city and state parks. Ely with the city of Knoxville said residents were clamoring for them, after five months of seeing them wrapped in caution tape.
Park operators say twice as many visitors are using the most popular state and local parks, like Seven Islands State Birding Park near Kodak. Robin Peeler, who manages state parks in the region from Knoxville to the Virginia border, said campers have snapped up all the reservations even at less-visited destinations, like Davy Crockett Birthplace near Limestone.
“Everything about parks and recreation is booming right now,” said Chuck James, Knox County parks director. Many more people are kayaking on Beaver Creek and renting paddle boards and canoes at The Cove at Concord Park, he said.
At 185 acres, Lakeshore is Knoxville’s largest and most visited park. It’s managed through a partnership between the city and the Lakeshore Park Conservancy. “We see that the park is very much a lifesaver for the community right now,” said Julianne Foy, executive director of the conservancy. “Parents are bringing their kids who are being homeschooled and using the park as an outdoor classroom.”
Four years ago, the last time visitation was closely studied, Lakeshore was welcoming more than a million people a year. “I know we have far exceeded that already this year,” Foy said.
Closures and maintenance
The surge in popularity has not been a universal good for local parks. When popular spring break destinations began closing because of COVID-19, many vacationers turned to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dana Soehn, park spokesperson, said a third more visitors than normal came the week before the park temporarily closed in March.
When the closure was announced, public outcry was swift.
“I would say it really leaned heavily on people wanting the access, and wanting to utilize the trails and that they felt like they could do it safely… to just escape the pressure of what it was like living through a pandemic,” Soehn said.
However, Smokies administrators feared that opening even backcountry trails might invite visitors to flood back into the surrounding towns, which had closed restaurants and hotels. Because Cherokee tribal lands had been completely closed to visitors, for a while no one could even exit the park on the North Carolina side of Newfound Gap Road. Park officials coordinated reopening with nearby communities.
At first, the park kept the most popular trails closed to encourage people to spread out. Many did, Soehn says: Backcountry camping in June increased by 21 percent.
“That seemed to be a place where people felt really safe, where they could disperse and have that physical distancing,” she said.
Soehn said more visitors tried some of the park’s less prominent entrances, like Big Creek (where June visitation was up 52 percent over the same month last year) and Cherokee Orchard Road (where August visitation was up 47 percent). However, these areas also have less infrastructure to handle crowds. The effects were worsened by the absence of the park’s active volunteer corps during the pandemic, she said. Overall, June and August set visitation records for the Smokies.
The park is expecting a long-needed shot of maintenance funding since Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act this summer. The legislation provides more than $9 billion to whittle down the maintenance backlog in national parks. Soehn said the park expects to learn what its share will be around the end of the month.
Altogether, the nation’s most visited national park needs $200 million-worth of delayed maintenance, mostly for roads. However, Soehn said the biggest priority is updating water and sewer systems so visitors escaping COVID can wash their hands (and flush toilets).
Increased visitation is also placing a burden on Tennessee State Parks. Regional manager Robin Peeler said some state parks have had to halt entry on busy days when parking lots and trails were overwhelmed.
Despite the visitor influx, state parks, like other state departments, have been asked by Gov. Bill Lee to cut 12 percent from their budgets. "Tennessee State Parks is currently in the process of reviewing its budget to maximize the guest experience while operating efficiently amid an ever-changing economic environment," said spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.
In local parks across East Tennessee, the visitor influx has strained maintenance budgets -- even as governments trim spending during the virus-induced recession.
Knox County’s Lakeshore Park costs $1,000 a day to operate, Foy said. It’s experiencing heavy wear while donations drop. The non-profit conservancy is trying to offset the cost through more facility rentals. Foy said many businesses held employee-appreciation luncheons in the park, and are already booking Christmas parties.
“People just need that community, and so many businesses have gone to remote working, so they’re not truly ever seeing each other in person,” Foy said. “We need human interaction, and I think businesses are seeing that’s a really important piece to working collaboratively and engaging with your co-workers.”
Knoxville’s Parks and Recreation department is financially well-prepared, director Sheryl Ely said. Its funding has increased for five years, with the current budget at $8 million, she said. With so much uncertainty, she’s aware that could change next year.
The Knox County parks budget has held steady, said Chris Caldwell, county finance director. Although there were eight temporary staff furloughs, parks were deliberately protected from the spending freeze Knox County enacted in April, he said.
Park changes on horizon
This year, several new parks have opened in Knox County while others are getting overhauled or improved.
Collier Preserve opened in Powell, and a new McBee Ferry park with a canoe and kayak launch is being added on the Holston River. Baker Creek Preserve in south Knoxville recently opened a new bike park with pump tracks. The Fort Kid playground is being redesigned, and Lakeshore Park is launching a new master plan that envisions major changes to the park.
The Lakeshore Conservancy plan would divide the park into zones for organized sports, social interaction, and natural areas. It includes new baseball fields, an amphitheatre and a nature playground. COVID has driven planners to consider also adding small gathering and play spaces, Foy said.
Public meetings about the proposal were put on hold during the pandemic, but almost 700 people provided comments online. Many of these were answered in a recent online public meeting and a drop-in forum at the park. Knoxville’s city council is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 20.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also working on a plan that could have a big impact on how visitors experience the park. With record visitation last year, the park was already seeking ways to reduce the crowding that disturbs wildlife, erodes trails and threatens safety. Public meetings to explain the problem and brainstorm solutions were delayed multiple times since spring. Now virtual meetings are planned for the third week in October, Soehn said.
The park is looking at tools used in other national parks, such as timed entry, visitor limits and shuttle buses. Traffic management data systems could show traffic jams and full parking lots online, in real time, to help people decide when to visit.
“In some areas, those tools have worked great. In other areas those solutions just pushed the congestion somewhere else -- a gateway community, or another area of the park,” Soehn said. “Our approach is really trying to work hand in hand with our local stakeholders and visitors to thoughtfully consider how we could better protect these areas and have access.”
Any changes would likely focus on the Smokies’ most popular trails, such as Rainbow Falls, Laurel Falls, the Chimneys, Alum Cave Trail, Clingman’s Dome and Cades Cove, she said.
Resolving such challenges will become more urgent if the public’s newfound love of parks survives the COVID-19 pandemic. Their enthusiasm has made this a positive time, Peeler said.
“The people that are coming out seem really happy, and just so really friendly and eager,” she said. “We feel like we’ve had new visitors, additional visitors, which we hope will be lifelong park supporters. It’s been nice to see some new faces.”
This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. October 8, to include comments from the Tennessee State Parks system.