In the name of #SocialDistancing, millions of Americans are holed up in their homes waiting for COVID-19 to go away (or writing op-eds for their boss). You can’t help wondering if staying six feet apart from strangers and friends could be better practiced in the great outdoors instead of alternating positions on the couch in three-hour increments. Now has never been a better time to go camping, which is a physically and psychologically healthier way of staying away from the masses than extended indoor time. Unfortunately, states and park officials have been closing campgrounds to stir-crazy Americans anxious to get away from their home offices for a couple of days. Allowing families to camp out during the coronavirus is a sensible thing to do and can even save taxpayers a buck or two.
Near major population centers, “public” activities are frowned upon and restaurants are take-out or delivery-only. Parks have proven a bit of a conundrum, with trails and areas generally remaining open so long as social distancing can be maintained. The same cannot be said for campgrounds. For example, on March 25, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced the closure of campgrounds, cabins, and bathhouses at Virginia State Parks effective through April 30. Closing bathhouses is probably for the best, but there’s no need to cordon off tent, RV, and cabin accommodations in the woods a healthy distance away from nearby camp sites. For example, Pocahontas State Park near Richmond, VA, could offer plenty of healthy seclusion for nearby residents as well as Washington, D.C.-ers. But these closures are becoming a nationwide phenomenon with even outdoorsy states such as Colorado and Idaho closing campgrounds. Camping prohibitions at national parks such as Acadia, Bandelier, Crater Lake, and Assateague Island National Seashore are a done deal and a bad idea.
These closures are sure to take a toll on taxpayers who are reeling from the $2.2 trillion in recent relief spending. National parks typically levy $15-30 per night in camping fees, not including parking permit costs. These revenues add up, especially at a time when the national park repair backlog exceeds $11 billion. Stopping this influx of money will further deteriorate the fiscal condition of national parks. Meanwhile, states such as Virginia usually charge $30 per night for “standard” camping spaces. States need all the fiscal help they can get during this difficult time and closing off campgrounds seals off yet another source of collectible non-taxpayer revenue.
Camping also confers plenty of benefits that can actually help halt the spread of the coronavirus. According to Yale epidemiologist Albert Ko, “There is better airflow outside than in confined spaces. That air flow outside reduces the risk of one person transmitting the virus to another through droplets in the air.” And, just like Dracula, many viruses don’t fare well against the onslaught of sunlight. Increased UV exposure can make it more difficult for viruses to spread, even if sunlight and moderate heat aren’t sufficient to vanquish the deadly disease outright. Increased intake of Vitamin D by being outdoors can bolster individuals’ immune systems and fight off an array of respiratory illnesses.
Being outdoors isn’t just a boon to physical health. Self-quarantiners around the world are already reporting the side-effects of spending prolonged periods indoors, ranging from anxiety to restlessness to reduced energy levels. Exposure to nature and sunlight are essential for a healthy mind and play a key role in regulating the body’s circadian clock. It stands to reason that staying indoors impacts individuals’ sleep cycles, which in turn can lead to significant, detrimental health effects in the future. By all means institute capacity caps for campgrounds, but let’s also encourage people to leave their homes and go hiking and camping—in wide open spaces conducive to social distancing—to counterbalance the inevitable problems created by staying home most days.
Allowing Americans to go camping again, within a safe capacity limit for each location, won’t balance any budgets or kill the coronavirus in its tracks. But it offers the nation a chance to heal and enjoy a brief respite from our current chaos.