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Attendance down at LI state parks due to lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, officials say

Crowds gather at Jones Beach State Park on

Crowds gather at Jones Beach State Park on July 5. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island state parks were less popular in the Summer of 2021 than last year, officials said Wednesday, pinning the decline not on the series of shark sightings but on the easing of pandemic curbs giving people other options than the outdoors.

Still, attendance at Brentwood State Park, a complex of athletic fields, more than doubled, revealing how contact sports, considered too high risk last year, evidently proved even more popular when they resumed.

This summer, 1.04 million visitors hit the park's playing fields, up from 425,000 in 2020 and 481,500 in 2019. Under former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, players at first were only allowed to practice contact sports, starting Sept. 21, 2020, but could not play until Dec. 31 of that year. In June 2020, some of the restrictions on other ways of having fun were lifted, including visiting spas and nail salons, and indoor dining restarted, though at half capacity and with other precautions.

The Island’s 31 parks and historic sites drew 22.3 million visitors from Jan. 1 to Sept. 6, the parks department said. That was almost two million below last year's total of 24.6 million.

In 2020, the first winter to summer stretch of the COVID-19 era, attendance shot up almost four million from the 2019 total of 20.03 million visitors.

The figures are not completely comparable, due to differences in the timing of the holidays each year.

Ocean beaches, including Wantagh’s Jones Beach State Park and Babylon’s neighboring Robert Moses State Park this summer both were forced to repeatedly suspend swimming or impose wading-only curbs after sharks were spotted too near the shores.

"It appears the level of visitors didn’t change when there were shark reports; traffic patterns remained consistent," said George Gorman, Long Island regional director, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Though the two beaches — usually among the state’s most popular — drew millions, their attendance did slip from last year. The decline was slim at Jones Beach, which drew 6.33 million this summer, down from 6.5 million. At Robert Moses, the drop was steeper: 3.56 million from 4.84 million.

This summer, concerns about sharks swimming close to shore arose around mid-July, a few weeks earlier than last year. The state Parks Department and local governments intensified patrols and other safeguards; a lifeguard might have been bitten by a shark in late July.

Scientists say sharks are being spotted by the shores as they chase one of their favorite prey: bunker fish. That migratory species has recovered, they say, due to fishing limits and the now cleaner ocean.

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