During this terrible pandemic year, one part of Long Island’s infrastructure served as a crucial and constant source of comfort and solace: our parks.
The numbers tell the story, with state park attendance between Jan. 1 and Labor Day up more than 4 million over the same period in 2019. That includes increases in the vast majority of Long Island’s state parks, including jumps in the popular Jones Beach and Robert Moses gems.
Many county parks saw increases, too, and anyone who has walked a jammed hiking or nature trail in Nassau or Suffolk knows that Long Islanders have been flocking to our open spaces.
Of course, we are. So much of life was put on hold this year, from movie theaters to concerts to, at least for a time, dining indoors. Most of us smartly decided we couldn’t gather safely and we often worried about a trip to the grocery store. But Long Island’s public spaces offered an escape, be it for swimming or walking or birdwatching or just sitting and enjoying the breeze. On miles of protected coastline or deep in forested terrain, it was possible — easy — to be socially distanced, even maskless, and relaxed for just a moment in a most stressful and unusual year.
The visitors came in spite of some spates of bad weather — Tropical Storm Isaias in August put some parks out of commission for days. And it is to the great credit of Long Island’s parks workers, health officials and patrol officers that visitors were largely kept from danger even at in-demand facilities. A spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said in an email that the agency was "not aware of any covid infections due to park visits."
Scientists knew early on that spreading the virus outdoors was unlikely, but a big thanks is also due to all the hardworking personnel who cleaned out bathrooms, managed parking lots, patrolled the beaches and trails and encouraged social distancing so that we could more safely enjoy our little sections of the natural world. The restrictions were frustrating for some, particularly regarding parking, but for the most part Long Islanders were able to get outside.
For the millions who flocked to Long Island parks this spring and summer, it’s a reminder of something we often take for granted. This kind of access to nature is a gift.
It is also a reminder of how important parks are to Long Island’s economy and wellbeing. Many Long Islanders rediscovered their parks this year, and we hope that encourages us all to demand their upkeep and good maintenance from elected officials. We also should look for ways to expand the network of parks here when possible, be it the Long Island Greenway which could become an east-west link for bikers and hikers, or the development of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center in Suffolk County.
Let’s make sure the Island’s green space remains a welcoming public resource, in bad times and good.
— The editorial board