Following guidance from federal, state and local health experts, Gulf Islands National Seashore is increasing recreational access at the Fort Pickens Campground next week.
The park is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida Department of Health and others to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, along with using a phased approach to increase access on a park-by-park basis.
“Which will basically bring Loop-A of the Fort Pickens campground up to 50% capacity starting Aug. 10,” said Everitt. “Back in March, when we closed the beaches in conjunction with local authorities, we also went ahead and closed the campground entirely. It has been closed since mid-March.”
Brent Everitt at the park says campers are now able to make reservations for the identified sites in Loop-A, using recreation.gov. Additional campsites will be available for reservations throughout August and September as conditions allow.
“Actually, every area of the National Seashore is open right now; most are operating on their regular operating hours and for the most part, we’ve tried to open as many facilities as we can,” Everitt said. “And when I mean facilities, I’m talking about beach showers and restrooms and those type of facilities.”
Available areas include Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa, Naval Live Oaks, Okaloosa, and Perdido Key areas in Florida. In Mississippi, the Davis Bayou Area and Petit Bois, West Petit Bois, Horn, and Ship islands, as well as the Park Service’s portion of Cat Island.
“The only thing that remains closed is partially the campground, and again, that will [open] on Aug. 10,” Everitt said. “But [not] our indoor facilities, like the Fort Pickens Discovery Center [and] Visitors Center, like that.”
Visitor numbers at the park are down overall, says Everitt, but things have been picking up the past two and a half months.
“Once we reopened and May came — I haven’t looked at our numbers specifically — but just anecdotally we are very, very busy,” said Everitt. “We’ve been seeing a lot of people at the park; locals, as well as folks from out of town.”
Also adjusting to life with COVID has been the ferry service linking Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach and the Port of Pensacola. Everitt says the operators of Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch are adapting to the new norm.
“They have been operating at 50% capacity, so obviously we’re not going to hit the numbers we had hoped to hit this year, in our second full year of service,” said Everitt. “But they’re still moving along and still seeing good ridership; and it’s very promising for the future – once we get beyond this pandemic time period.”
The key to any and all visits to Gulf Islands National Seashore, says Everitt, is a spirit of mutual protection from the virus between staff and visitors with the latter “recreating responsibly.”
“Visitors may see rangers wearing masks; we do ask people to socially distance from themselves and from employees, and then we do have increased cleaning procedures for those facilities that are open,” Everitt said. “There are a lot of things behind the scenes that the visitor won’t see.”
But those things are hardly a state secret — spokesman Brent Everitt calls them “engineered changes.”
“Shifted schedules, modified operations; whether it’s staggering schedules or moving people to different offices, separating vehicles,” said Everitt. “It’s mundane, administrative-type things. It’s nothing that the visitor would ever experience it just helps keep our employees safe.”