Park opened unofficially for summer season
Presque Isle State Park visitors went for a jog, enjoyed a cookout, cast a fishing line and grabbed some sunshine on beaches.
After two months of stay-at-home orders, social distancing, wearing face masks and working remotely, many felt a sense of normality return to their lives.
They were just more mindful of COVID-19 safety measures in place Saturday for the unofficial start of the peninsula’s summer season.
“I haven’t done anything for two months and the most I get out is twice or three times a week, and I just needed to see different scenery and other people,” said Sam Beepath, 55, a Chambersburg resident making her first visit to Presque Isle State Park. “This water is soothing and calming.”
She lunched on sandwiches, chips and fruit at a lone picnic table along the Presque Isle Bay shoreline at the Niagara Boat Launch early Saturday afternoon.
Joining Beepath were her daughter, Ambika Reedpath, 33, and her son-in-law, Larry Reedpath, 43.
The Pittsburgh couple, like Beepath, admired the bay scenery on their first peninsula visit as a group of ducks waddled slowly past their lunch locale.
“We just want to hang out for the day and see what it’s like up here,” Larry Reedpath said. “We’re going to social distance, try and stay away from people and just use common sense. That’s why we picked this spot over here instead of being around big groups of people. We drove around and found this spot.”
Numerous small fishing boats dotted Presque Isle Bay. Boat trailers sported license plates of anglers from West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Virginia and Louisiana.
Many of the beaches where swimming is prohibited until at least June 5 were sparsely populated.
Park staff limited people capacity on beaches and attempted to keep parkgoers distanced from each other.
As of Saturday afternoon, park officials reported few enforcement issues with COVID-19 safety issues.
“We’ve been seeing smaller family activities and really I haven’t seen a group that was near 25 people at this point, so we’re really happy how things are going so far,” said Matt Greene, the park’s operations manager.
Park officials are requesting that visitors wear face masks and practice social distancing. Officials have reduced parking availability at some popular beaches to 50 percent and will attempt to prevent gatherings of more than 25 people.
“As long as everybody keeps doing social distancing and wearing masks around other people, I think we’re going to be good to go,” Greene said.
State COVID-19 mitigation guidelines since the new coronavirus onset in mid-March have fueled an increase in Presque Isle State Park attendance, Greene said.
Peninsula attendance in April totaled 354,000, an increase of 89,00 over April 2019 attendance of 265,000.
The park attracted 292,000 visitors in March. Peninsula attendance in March 2019 totaled 190,000.
Greene also expects park attendance totals for May to be 100,000 to 150,000 above May 2019 peninsula attendance.
“We’ve always known there are lots of mental health benefits of being out with recreation in parks, and this may be one of the first times in history where it’s really starting to prove itself beyond the other normal health benefits of being outside,” Greene said. “It’s kind of cool.”
About a dozen park rangers and about 20 lifeguards kept watch over visitors Saturday.
Memorial Day weekend usually signals the start of the park’s swimming season.
Greene said beaches will not reopen until park officials receive further swimming guidelines from the state health department and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.
“We won’t get tested too badly until we have those 85-degree days when everybody wants to come out, probably later on in June,” Greene said. “Hopefully, by that point, when we figure out what the swimming guidelines can be, we can open up in a more robust fashion, have lifeguards on the beach, get a lot of people in the water and keep that distance with people.
“When you keep them all on land, it’s tighter then when you let them on land and in the water,” Greene said. “We have to wait until we get those guidelines and figure out how we’re going to manage that.”
Millcreek Township resident Amber McDowell, 37, and several family members rented a surrey and pedaled a couple miles, taking in views from the Waterworks area to Perry Monument.
“We were looking to get out of the house and enjoy some sunshine,” McDowell said. “We needed a different change in scenery and we wanted to be out in nature and relieve some stress.”
Benton Samec, 31, elected to relieve stress and have some fun by dressing up as Ghost Rider — the skeleton-like motorcyclist with a flaming skull portrayed by actor Nicolas Cage in the 2007 movie — and riding a modified bicycle at the park.
“Since all the ComiCon conventions are closed this year, I figure I spent all winter building this and I might as well take it out for a ride,” Samec said.
Samec wore dark pants, a black leather jacket, black gloves and a homemade Ghost Rider helmet.
“You couldn’t beat today with the nice weather,” he said. “Now that the sun has come out, it’s a little bit warmer. Everybody tells me I did a good job with it.”
Contact Ron Leonardi at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNleonardi.