Local Parks Offer Safe Haven During Pandemic

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On October 5, Governor Larry Hogan announced that Maryland state parks had reported a record 17.1 million visitors so far in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the stay-at-home order, local and state governments encouraged residents to spend time outdoors. Similarly, the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks offered local parks as a refuge to many families. At Kinder Farm Park in Millersville, this resulted in a 50 percent increase in attendance during 2020 with only three months left in the year.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are visiting the park for the first time just out adventuring and looking for new places to go,” said Kinder Farm Park Superintendent Bradley Hunt.

The park has even seen an increase in county residents who have never been to the park and families from all over the state looking for something new.

“I think everybody just wanted to get outside and do things, and parks offer that,” said Hunt. “We have seen an explosion of people here. Even though buildings are closed, we have had a huge increase in people.”

On March 16, entry fees at all county parks were waived to encourage residents to get outside during the stay-at-home order. Hunt said this is when the attendance surged.

“They are seeing the county extend themselves, offering a safer place to go outside and social distance, rather than be cooped up inside a house on lockdown,” said Hunt. “It was great that the county was able to offer it to people for free for a while, and a lot of people took advantage of that.”

Attendance at Kinder Farm Park has remained consistently high after fees were reinstated on September 1. Even with the arrival of colder weather, the numbers are significantly higher than 2019. Hunt predicts that this could have something to do with virtual schooling.

“One kind of interesting thing is that with the kids being in virtual schooling right now, Wednesday is their free day, and we are seeing a ton of families and kids,” said Hunt.

Hunt believes that the county parks have been an important mental health outlet for people who are struggling with being cooped up in their houses.

“The county keeping parks open gave people a place to go and forget about the world for a while and relax,” said Hunt. “I think that's good for their physical and mental wellbeing.”

The Friends of Kinder Farm Park (FOKFP), a nonprofit organization that supports the park through fundraising, has also continued monthly meetings, though volunteers have had to limit attendance to board members only. The vice president of Friends of Kinder Farm Park, Karen Haghighi, said that since the pandemic, many large PayPal donations from community members have come through, as well as cash donations to the park’s “piggy bank,” a donation box that supports the Farm Education and Livestock Group, which cares for the animals. While they have not seen a similar spike in membership, the FOKFP are appreciative of donations, as many of the fundraising efforts have been canceled. FOKFP made the difficult decision early on to cancel all events for the duration of 2020. This included the Jingle Bell Hayride and the annual Fall Harvest Festival. Though many ideas have been tossed around, the group has not planned a holiday alternative.

“Our creativity has been stifled,” said Haghighi. “We kept trying to use our imagination about how we could do certain things. As a group, we work so well together and we have a lot of good skillsets that we haven't been able to put together.”

Though the group is currently limited, FOKFP is hosting a food drive on December 5 to benefit SPAN. Food will be collected in the handmade sleigh that would have transported Mr. and Mrs. Claus during the Jingle Bell Hayride.

Both Haghighi and Hunt agree that the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks served county residents in a difficult time, and this newfound appreciation for their local parks isn’t going anywhere. At the end of the pandemic, people will remember who helped them through it.

“I’m pretty convinced that if anything has come out of this pandemic for the parks, it's made them visible for people and it's brought new people in,” said Hunt. “I'm pretty confident that our attendance will either go higher or maintain the same.”

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