KEARNEY — Campers are wasting no time in reserving reopened campsites at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area.
Within 24 hours after the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reopened its state park online reservation link Tuesday, all 91 available sites at Fort Kearny had been reserved for Memorial Day weekend.
Gene Hunt, park superintendent, wasn’t surprised.
“This is the most popular camping weekend of the year,” he said.
That’s an understatement this year, especially since the coronavirus has constrained outdoor activities since mid-March.
NGPC noted that it had an “overwhelming demand” for camping from the public, even though shower houses, swimming beaches, playground and park activities remain closed. The commission complied — with some limitations.
Because nearly all park restroom facilities remain closed, tents are not permitted yet. Only RVs and campers with their own plumbing are allowed with no more than eight people per RV.
Also, all sites now must be reserved in advance. Prior to this spring, only 35 or 36 sites at Fort Kearny could be reserved.
Hunt said nine RV sites have been closed because they sit too close to other sites. “We want a minimum of 25 feet between camping pads,” he said.
T he park’s showers and flush toilets remain closed, as does the playground, but people still may hike and fish. The park’s dump station is also open.
“We wanted to limit numbers of people coming in. We had a real concern about Memorial Day weekend, and we’re not sure what warm weather’s going to do to the virus,” Hunt said.
“Right now, we’re following guidelines set by public officials. We’ve been living with this day by day, hour by hour. Some of this is pretty difficult for us. We’re trying to open up as much as we can, but we’re also trying to follow all the guidelines. The last thing we want to do is become a COVID-19 hot spot,” he said.
Hunt called parks “a contentious place for the virus to spread.”
He said big city parks were closed immediately when COVID-19 began to spread, “but we closed a little later.”
Hunt has not ruled out the return of some park events this summer. The annual Memorial Day weekend cannon firing and Living History program had to be canceled, “but if the governor relaxes those rules, we might be able to do cannon firing in shifts over July 4 or Labor Day. That hasn’t been ruled out,” he said. But it’s also too early to write it in ink on the calendar.
Gov. Pete Ricketts’ prevailing directed health measures for social distancing and group sizes fewer than 10 still apply, and park visitors remain responsible for their own actions to protect their health, the health of their community and that of other park users, according to Nebraska Game and Parks Director Jim Douglas.
Douglas said the decision to allow limited RV camping, by reservation only, is consistent with health directives that encourage limited crowds and the parks’ capacity to protect and serve the public.
While Fort Kearny State Recreation Area is closed to tent campers, they may venture to 35 smaller state recreation areas and wildlife management areas this weekend. Neither tent campers or RV campers will need reservations at those 35 sites.
“We are pleased to be able to offer more opportunities on smaller park areas that typically attract fewer people,” Douglas said.
He said more, less constricted openings could occur as the weather warms, while managing the constraints of COVID-19, but it is too early to predict that yet.
Hunt said, “The public has been helpful and courteous. Everyone understands the situation and how hard we’re working to get people outdoors. But we need to follow the guidelines to keep the public safe.”