Campers return as campgrounds officially open to visitors

As some restrictions lift, people are setting up camp again.

Marr Park in Ainsworth is open to campers and currently has about a quarter of the sites filled. (Gretchen Teske, The Union)
Marr Park in Ainsworth is open to campers and currently has about a quarter of the sites filled. (Gretchen Teske, The Union)

For Kay Witthoft, of Washington, Marr Park is home. It literally was home for a few years when it was her permanent address but now the campgrounds are just a place to visit and reconnect with old memories.

Witthoft was just one of many who visited the Ainsworth park run by Washington County Conservation. Before her husband passed away, the pair would camp together in their favorite lot, which she calls “the best spot in the place.”

Zach Rozmus, Director of Washington County Conservation, said currently about a quarter of the campsites are filled with 10 of the 41 sites occupied. Over Memorial Day weekend, the entire park was full, he said.

Jefferson County Conservation Director Shawn Morrisey also reported an increase in campers over the holiday weekend but could not say for sure if the rush would continue.

“I would say we’ve been busy but part of it is that Memorial weekend is always busy,” he said.

However, the parks in general have been busier throughout the pandemic, he said, with more people using the public trails.

“I would say we have been busier by far than a normal spring in all of our areas,” he said.

Becky Thornton, Office Manager for the Henry County Conservation Department said the camp grounds at Oakland Mills were completely full for Memorial Day weekend and reservations have slowly begun to pick up.

“After things started lifting, we started getting more orders,” she said, adding the website slowed down when restrictions were in place.

Bathrooms, cabins and shower houses will remain closed until June 1, she said, and the number of people allowed will be restricted in order to follow state regulations. Those staying in cabins will only have the option to stay Friday and Saturday night.

By calling the office, the stay can be extended to Sunday night as well, she said, but campers must be out on Monday as cleaning will take place that evening. The cabins will remain closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for safety measures to allow for the cleaning products to take effect and destroy any remnants of the virus.

Rozmus reported the bathrooms and shower houses in Ainsworth are also closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have an uncertain open date.

“We’re monitoring that as a staff to see what we’re comfortable with and knowing that when the public goes in there, we want it disinfected to a point where it’s safe as well,” he said.

The shower houses double as the storm shelters, he said, and will be open to campers in event of severe weather. The conservation center is also a shelter, he said and the basement will be open for campers.

Morrisey said staff is working hard to keep notices up to date on the website and Facebook page about the changes happening at the parks.

“Basically our camp grounds are all fully opened. We still have the 10 person (limit),” he said, emphasizing the governor’s restrictions that gatherings must have no more than 10 people. Because of this, social distancing is being strongly encouraged.

Daily cleaning of restrooms has been increased, he said, and the cabins are available for rent as well.

Morrisey said he is hoping the outdoor playgrounds will be able to open June 1 but right now the concern is trying to establish whether or not it is safe to open the shelters. Large groups of more than 10 may be allowed as long as they can maintain proper social distancing, he said, but that is to be determined as directed by the state.

“That’s still kind of a question mark right now, our shelters,” he said.

As more places in the state begin to open, Thornton said the campsites at Oakland Mills are beginning to fill again with reservations being placed for July 4 and the weeks surrounding Old Threshers almost full.

“People are now not scared to make a reservation and camp,” she said.