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Washington public lands to open May 5 for some recreation, including hunting and fishing

Gov. Jay Inslee has turned his proverbial dial another notch toward normal. The governor announced Monday afternoon that some recreation may resume across Washington state, including hunting, fishing and golfing. 

“Reconnecting people to nature is the first step in the journey back to normalcy,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. She joined the governor and other state leaders for Monday’s announcement, the latest development in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While public lands and most state parks will open beginning May 5, people enjoying them are still urged to practice strict social distancing and limit travel. 

Kelly Susewind, director of Fish and Wildlife, said people should stick to day trips with people in their households and avoid engaging with anyone outside their immediate groups.

“Take everything with you that you need,” Susewind said, to limit exposure in the communities that are home to these lands. 

Camping, team sports and public gatherings at public parks are still prohibited under the state’s stay-at-home order, which was first instituted March 23. It’s set to expire May 4.

Susewind also noted that some activities, such as certain types of spring hunting, may not fit within the social-distancing guidelines. Fish and Wildlife is reimbursing licensing fees in those instances, he noted. 

Certain coastal areas and activities, such as clam digging, are still subject to the stay-at-home order, too. Susewind said marine access is limited. Many boat launches are closed, and the agency is working with small coastal towns to make sure they’re prepared for any opening. 

“We don’t want to create congestion in the closed areas,” Susewind said.  

Don Hoch, director of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, added that many of those cities and counties are worried about a lack of street parking and a swell of gatherings in their communities.

“We will open up our beach parks as soon as we can,” Hoch said. 

Inslee said golf courses are allowed to open, but must limit play to twosomes who can socially distance. Foursomes from the same household are allowed, he added. 

Officials across the state, reacting to the news, stressed that it won't be back to business as usual. People getting out still need to do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and be mindful of what’s opening and what’s remaining closed.

I think this is really a trial run to see, can social distancing and recreating on state lands really go together,” said Kindra Ramos, with the Washington Trails Association. She says people need to remember that it’s only state lands that are reopening, and not all of them. You'll have to do your research ahead of time. Know what's open. Be prepared, so you have different places to go if you get somewhere and it is either closed or crowded.”

And, she added, follow the rules.

Ramos advises people to bring food and water, hand sanitizer, and masks with them on the trails, in case they’re forced to move past others within the 6-foot range.

Paige DeChambeau, recreation communications manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, says no additional enforcement is planned. But if people don’t follow the rules, the state can quickly shut down problem areas.

“We’re just focusing on education and hoping that people take it upon themselves,” she said.

The loosened restrictions on use of public lands come several days after Inslee announced some low-risk construction projects could resume, with the necessary precautions. 

He reiterated that it will be a long time before we see a full-scale reopening of the economy, but stopped short of providing specifics on what will and won’t resume when the stay-at-home order is set to expire. 

“As time goes on, we intend to continue to turn that dial, to continue opening our community,” Inslee said. “We will have to maintain a significant part of our effort after May 4.

“If we gave up today, we’d be right back in a similar situation as we were earlier this month and in March when this (virus) was rampant.”

Inslee has hinted that elective surgeries may be next up in the gradual reopening of activities across the state. He said Monday that his office is still working on a plan for those procedures that wouldn’t intrude on personal protective equipment needs of front-line workers responding to the COVID-19 crisis. 

He reiterated, as he has many times before, that a lack of testing and contact tracing is slowing down the state’s ability to open more sectors of the economy faster. 

“We’ve been woefully short on test kits,” Inslee said. “We’d like to test four times the number of people we’re testing today as soon as possible.”

He noted that President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence assured him on a phone call Monday that more testing supplies were on the way. 

Inslee stressed that turning the dial relies on the progress of many metrics: epidemiological modeling, hospital capacity, and many more factors considered together. He says Washington must be confident it can “reopen society and not suffer the fate of New York.”  

Inslee acknowledged that the state’s incremental progress may not be moving as fast as people might hope, but it’s still moving. 

“This is not some kind of wishful thinking. We’re actually taking action on our plan,” he said. “This is the first two steps of many.”

KNKX's Bellamy Pailthorp contributed to this report. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.