The Trump administration’s plan to reopen national parks has sparked deep concerns among National Park Service (NPS) employees after the agency stopped making public the number of employees testing positive for COVID-19 and told employees they could not ask visitors to wear masks.
Many national parks had been closed since March. But over the past week, tens of thousands of people flocked to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Blue Ridge Parkway, and other national parks that reopened with the support of the Trump administration. Most of the visitors, however, did not wear masks, nor did they practice social distancing.
That raised health concerns among NPS workers who are compelled to go to work and risk contracting the disease and transferring it to family members. Earlier this month, the agency told employees it was no longer making public the number of employees who had contracted COVID-19.
“I viewed this as a way for the National Park Service to hide the impact of their decision to keep many parks open early on,” said AFGE NPS Council Executive Vice President Jeff Sievert.
Sievert said his park – Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia – and other parks are tracking the number of people with symptoms, but they have not released any information on the number of employees who have been tested.
NPS plans on distributing a plan to reopen national parks to employees. That plans seems logical: decisions to open parks will be made at lower levels based on local conditions. Parks should follow CDC and state and local guidance. NPS wants to open parks in phases. They want to start with outdoor activities. They stress throughout the plan that the health of employees, visitors, concessioners, and visitors is important to them.
But during an all employee call with the NPS director on May 18, employees were told they could not make visitors wear masks at their parks.
“This seems to contradict the NPS message that they are concerned about the health of their employees. As a union president, I am concerned that the NPS will bow to public and/or political pressure and make decisions on opening parks that do not align with protecting the health and safety of employees and the visiting public,” said Sievert, who’s also acting president of AFGE Local 2058.
“The National Park Service is required to provide a safe working environment for its employees. Its work force is dedicated to its mission of preserving these national treasures. However, these NPS employees and their families should not be made to pay the ultimate price just because some believe that COVID-19 is a hoax or no longer a problem.”