Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at all national parks that remain open during the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to aid public social distancing.
"This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks," Bernhardt said in a news release Wednesday.
"Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing."
The step comes as more than 7,500 people have been infected by the virus in the US, and at least 125 have died. In response, states are ordering new shutdowns and restrictions every day and public health officials are encouraging the public to stay home and practice social distancing to contain the spread of the virus.
Still, while the National Park Service has temporarily closed some parks, the vast majority remain fully or partially open -- though "many facilities will be closed."
In an open letter released earlier this month, an organization representing National Park Service retirees called on the agency to introduce broader closures to protect the staff and the public.
Chair Phil Francis of The Coalition to Protect America's Parks argues that "to suggest to the public that gathering at national park sites is acceptable ... is irresponsible to the visiting public and employees."
“National parks welcome visitors from around the world,” Francis writes. “Many National Park Service employees interact with members of the public daily.”