Parks Canada is restricting access in national parks and historic sites after people flocked to the popular areas on the weekend.

The federal agency said it’s still noticing lots of visitors despite the suspension of services and facility closures last week.

Officials are now suspending motor vehicle access, starting Wednesday, until further notice.

“I know this weekend was quite beautiful across our great county, which leads many families to spend time outdoors in our parks and our heritage sites,” Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who is responsible for Parks Canada, said Tuesday in a video posted on YouTube.

“We saw visitation rates soar.”

Similar concerns have been raised in communities within or near national parks.

The Alberta towns of Banff and Canmore, which is just east of Banff National Park’s gates, saw visitors crowding their main streets. It led to concerns from residents about increasing the risk of COVID-19 in places with limited health-care facilities.

Wilkinson said crowding on the trails and at day-use areas in the national parks and historic sites is also unsafe.

“It increases the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” he said in the video.

Wilkinson said the restriction on vehicles includes parking lots and trailheads at all national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

Ontario closed its provincial parks last Thursday until April 30 to protect the health of employees and visitors. It included putting up gates at park entrances and locking buildings.

B.C. also added restrictions Tuesday after a surge in weekend traffic.

“The mental and physical wellness benefit of being outside during the COVID-19 pandemic response is important, but keeping people safe right now is the most important thing we can be doing,” B.C. Minister of Environment George Heyman, said in a news release.

He said there will be full closures in certain parks until health officials can get a handle on the spread.

Parks Canada said in a news release that highways and roadways through the national parks will remain open for residents, but people are urged to stay home unless travel is essential.

Commercial and truck traffic will also be allowed on those corridors including the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park and Yoho National Park in British Columbia.

Officials said parking isn’t permitted on highways and roadways through the areas.

“We are asking all Canadians to respect these restrictions,” Parks Canada said in the release.

Parks staff will continue to perform highway maintenance, snow removal, fire response, dam operations and water management on historical waterways, as well as avalanche forecasting and control in the mountain parks.

Officials with Avalanche Canada, however, said they will issue their final forecast of the season on Saturday due a lack of available data and larger concerns about the health-care system.

“We do not want to provide a service that promotes recreating in mountainous terrain, where there is often a significant hazard,” executive director Gilles Valade said in a release. “Both B.C. and Alberta have declared a state of emergency.

“Our health authorities, as well as our prime minister, are urging people to stay home. This is clearly not the time for taking any sort of risk.”

Rescue groups had already asked backcountry users last week to choose low-risk activities at a time when health resources are stretched due to COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 24, 2020


Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press