Madison resident Staci Uebersetzig and her husband have just finished building their new home.
Their grass has yet to grow in and there are no sidewalks in their new neighborhood with ongoing construction, making it increasingly difficult to let their 4-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son play outside.
As the COVID-19 public health emergency has most families spending their time inside the house, Uebersetzig expressed her gratitude that Madison county parks have remained open.
“I deal with anxiety and depression, and these times have put me somewhat on edge — trying to help educate my kiddos, keep a somewhat normal routine and be present for them during these strange times while their dad works from home in the basement,” Uebersetzig said.
Uebersetzig’s family has gone on at least one nature hike at a county or state park each week since schools closed — that is, until this past Thursday.
In late March, the City of Madison announced that although park amenities, activities and facilities are closed, the parks and trails themselves will remain open.
“Recognizing outdoor spaces play a critical role in the mental and physical wellbeing of our community, trails and several off-leash dog parks will remain open with appropriate safety precautions taken,” the city said.
But Gov. Tony Evers recently directed the Department of Natural Resources to close 40 state parks, forests and recreational areas to promote social distancing, including Devil’s Lake State Park which resides an hour outside of Madison. The park closures are due to public safety risks caused by overcrowding, vandalism and littering.
“The situation has reached a point where public safety in the parks and surrounding communities takes precedence over keeping these locations open,” a press release from Evers' office stated.
Still, while local parks and paths remain open, many families are taking advantage of the opportunity to get out and enjoy nature.
With a husband working overtime in law enforcement, Madison resident Karin Alwin is home by herself with her six, four and 2-year-old children. For her family, going outside has decreased their stress.
“We go outside everyday, but getting outside beyond our yard and neighborhood lets them see that there is still a world out there,” Alwin said.
Alwin also uses the parks as a way to input educational lessons for her children while schools are closed, doing science and nature lessons outdoors.
“One of our last hikes we talked about wild turkeys, because we saw evidence of them in the woods we were in,” Alwin said. “We talk about plant life, the different types of trees and what wildlife we might see depending on the habitat. We all seem refreshed once we’ve been out in nature.”
With the closure of playgrounds, basketball courts, athletic fields and other park amenities, many families have gotten innovative with how they use the public spaces that remain.
Resident Nathan DauSchmid explained how his family has had to think outside the box to keep their kids entertained during quarantine.
“My toddler has lots of energy so taking him to the park to play games in the field is a great activity,” DauSchmid said. “Since the playgrounds are off-limits for now, we have to get more creative with our games. His favorite so far is 'climb the pile' which is a toddler speak for walking up a small hill.”
Hike it Baby — a national organization with a mission to connect families and young children to the outdoors and to each other — hopes quarantine will continue to give residents the chance to explore their local parks.
Ambassador Dineo Dowd emphasized the importance of parks remaining open throughout the public health crisis for Madison families. Her own family has visited 33 state parks in the past two years — and plenty during quarantine.
“I have to say I was very nervous when the national parks started closing down because of the COVID-19,” Dowd said. “For me and my family, the outdoors is our happy place. We go outside to explore and heal. We are always on the road exploring the state parks.”
Despite the positive aspects of parks remaining open, Dowd emphasized how important it is to respect nature and practice safe social distancing.
“For the past two weeks, we have seen hundreds of people flooding to the state parks. We were super stoked about that — finally, everyone is getting outside and moving. But because we are very outdoorsy and we practice leaving no trace, we have noticed people not respecting nature, not practicing social distancing and ignoring hiking signs in the trails. Me and my family have started a mission to remind hikers to leave no trace, and the importance of following rules,” she stated.
In order to keep city parks open, the City of Madison emphasizes the community must work to practice safe social distancing. Residents experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus, such as a fever or shortness of breath, are discouraged from using parks or trails.