SPICER — The camping season at the Kandiyohi County parks usually begins May 1 and the county opened up online reservations for its sites at five parks all the way back in mid-January. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of unessential businesses drastically changed the 2020 camping season.
All reservations for the month of May were canceled, as the governor's executive order initially kept all public campgrounds closed. That changed Monday, as the county parks reopened for business.
"The reservation calls have been really good the last two weeks. People have been locked up all spring, they are itching to get out," said Laura Anfinson, who manages Green Lake County Park in Spicer with her husband, Dean.
While the campgrounds, stores and other park amenities are open, it is markedly different from years past. With help from the Kandiyohi County Emergency Management Department, each of the county parks has created an individual plan for new cleaning procedures, and those parks with stores and campgrounds have needed to find new ways of doing business during a global pandemic.
"So far everyone has been really good, been understanding that it might take a little longer for us to get things out to them," said Beth Lief. She and her husband, Todd, are park managers at Games Lake County Park.
High-touch surfaces at the parks — from restrooms and showers to doorknobs and rented recreation equipment like kayaks — will be sanitized and cleaned either several times a day or after each use.
Campsites are being cleaned between reservations, and slight but important changes have been made to normal operations. At Green Lake, campers now check in and check out by telephone and they are being asked to throw their garbage away at the disposal area near the camp store. The store itself is walk-up-only because the small size of the facility makes social distancing difficult.
"It has been a lot of extra work, but we are willing to jump through the hoops to reopen," Anfinson said.
Games Lake has outdoor seating set up for its restaurant, along with curbside pickup. Inside the camp store, social distancing marks have been placed on the floor to help customers be safe. Staff are also doing their part by having health checks before every shift, wearing masks when serving customers and creating cleaning schedules.
"They've been great about it," Lief said.
The parks are also asking for the help of their visitors and campers. Those who have campers or RVs with bathrooms are being asked to use them as much as possible to help reduce the amount of traffic in the park's restroom facilities to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. Groups should be restricted to members of the same household and the practice of good social distancing and hand washing will be important.
"The public has to have some responsibility also," said Kim Lindahl, Kandiyohi County Emergency Management director.
While implementing the needed changes at the parks has been challenging and has added a lot of work for the managers and their staff members, it has been worth it. Not just because the managers rely on the summer season for their livelihood but because it is important for the parks to be open for the public.
"It is important to everyone's mental health," Lief said. "You have to get out and do other things."
As changes are made to the state's pandemic response and restrictions are loosened or even tightened again, the parks will be ready to respond.
"We are ready to further adapt if the situation changes," Anfinson said.
The county parks are a highlight of Kandiyohi County and with these new steps implemented, the hope is people will continue to enjoy them.
"We always wanted them to be open. We are trying to do it as safety as we can," Lindahl said. "We still want people to come to our communities and our county for enjoyment."