SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As he walked through Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area near Yankton one evening, Jeff Van Meeteren counted campers.
“I saw 321 campers,” Van Meeteren said of his Saturday, May 2, count. The campground has 417 spaces. “That’s not typical,” he said. “Normally, we half of the spaces, about 200.”
Van Meeteren is the supervisor for the southeastern district of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.
To the north, northeastern district supervisor Willy Collignon also noted the activity in the state parks in his district. “The parks were all busy,” Collignon said. “It was a nice weekend.”
Nice weather, free entrance and COVID-19 helped boost those camper numbers on May 2, Van Meeteren said.
The state is reminding the public that Mother’s Day on May 10 is another good reason to visit state parks. Parks will still be free in terms of entrance and fishing fees that day but camping fees must still be paid.
The first full weekend in May followed a busy April at state parks. Jona Ohm of the GFP said state parks drew 476,000 visitors in April. That’s 50% more than in 2019 and at least 100,000 more than in 2016 and 2017. It was also more than in 2018.
Flooding and frequent rain caused visitors and camping numbers to decline in 2019, Collignon said.
Another natural issue presented itself this spring with the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, this virus doesn’t seem to be keeping people away.
“People are wanting desperately to get out and do something…,” Van Meeteren said.
People are living with COVID-19 by maintaining physical social distances of six feet. For some, it’s meant postponing time spent with extended family and friends and time away from restaurants and entertainment venues.
State parks offer a way to people to get a break, the park supervisors said.
“Our camping numbers are definitely up compared to last year,” Collignon said.
“The past two weekends have been exceptional,” Van Meeteren said.
People took full advantage of free access, nice weather and a need to take a break, he said.
“You could see hundreds of people out hiking, walking, biking, fishing on the shoreline,” Van Meeteren said.
What he did not see was people disrespecting the Center for Disease Control’s recommended six-foot distance between themselves and others. Van Meeteren said families spent time together but they stayed six feet away from others outside the family.
“We are promoting social distancing,” Collignon said.
More than a week ago, Gov. Kristi Noem said the state would start returning back to normal as social distancing and other actions have reduced the need for hospital beds for those with COVID-19 who require them.
Collignon and Van Meeteren said state parks are part of getting back to normal. In another week or so, the GFP plans to open restrooms, Van Meeteren said.
The state will also start charging entrance fees.
The changes will happen after the planned May 15 open house at state parks, they said. Events are still planned at parks for May but they may be structured differently. See a list of upcoming May events online.
As back to normal continues at state parks, Collignon said vault toilets and other open facilities will be cleaned regularly.
“We do thorough cleaning procedures and we will do more routine inspections,” Collignon said.
Park users will still be encouraged to buy annual passes online. Offices will still be closed.
Van Meeteren hopes one unusual feature that happened during COVID-19 continues.
COVID-19 and free entrance may have encouraged some people to visit state parks for the first time. It may have also encouraged others to return after a gap.
“We’re hopeful we’ve created some new visitors,” Van Meeteren said.