Officials at Big Bend National Park say Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s rollback on the state’s mask mandate has “no impact” on park rules, and visitors are still required to wear a mask in all park buildings, as well as in outdoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
By Carlos Morales, Ari Snider
With visitation at Big Bend National Park expected to balloon this month for spring break, park officials have said visitors will still need to wear masks where required despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott rescinding the state’s mask mandate.
While the sprawling park is made up of hundreds of miles of West Texas desert, its status as a national park puts it under federal jurisdiction. “We are required to follow the mandates of the federal government when they are in conflict with state or local mandates,” wrote the park’ superintendent Bob Krumenaker in an email to the park’s partners and officials throughout the region.
As outlined in the reopening plan for Big Bend National Park, visitors need to wear masks inside all park buildings and in outdoor spaces where visitors and staff can’t keep a physical distance, including “crowded trails and trailheads [and] viewpoints…”
The park’s mask requirements follow an agency-wide mandate from the National Park Service last month which covers the country’s 63 national parks as well as federal buildings.
“Wearing a mask around others, physical distancing, and washing your hands are the simplest and most effective public health measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said NPS Office of Public Health Director Captain Sara Newman in a press release announcing the new directive.
The NPS mask requirement is intended for all park employees, visitors, partners—which, in the case of Big Bend National Park, covers groups like the local school district and U.S. Border Patrol—as well as outside contractors.
“Getting outside and enjoying our public lands is essential to improving mental and physical health, but we all need to work together to recreate responsibly,” wrote Newman last month.
The mask requirement comes on the heels of what’s expected to be a busy time for Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend National Park has seen a boom in visitor numbers this year and last, part of a national trend of increased interest in outdoor activities during the pandemic.
Last year, the park broke monthly visitation records on three separate occasions—in February before shutdowns began and again in October and November.
In February 2020, there were 50,584 park visitors; while October and November saw 51,231 and 62,515 visitors, respectively, representing a 19% and 23% increase in traffic over the same months in 2019.
The 800,000 acre national park also weathered two shutdowns last year due to the pandemic.
Now officials are hoping the new mask mandate will prevent any potential outbreaks in the future as staff prepare for tourists to flood the park during spring break vacation.