When Dan McGee goes out for his morning run, he makes sure he has his usual essentials: sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat.
This week, he added two more items as he prepared for his walk on the nature trail in Mission’s Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park: a face mask and hand sanitizer.
“I usually come here five times a week to go on a run,” McGee, 64, a retired restaurant owner said. “I usually take my friends and family here and we spend a day exploring the park. I prefer it to walking around my neighborhood. Here you see so many different animals and the scenery nature provides, it’s gorgeous.”
McGee was one of a handful of visitors visiting the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park after it reopened Monday following an executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as part of a gradual reopening of the state.
As part of the opening, visitors will face new restrictions in effect which include visitors being required to wear face coverings and maintain a six-foot distance from individuals outside of their party, and prohibiting the gathering of groups larger than five.
“As we navigate through these challenging times, it is essential that outdoor experiences and opportunities are available for Texas families. We have been diligently working with our partners in local communities across the state to help safeguard our state park visitors, volunteers and staff when they return to Texas State Parks,” Carter Smith, Executive Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said in a news release. “During the temporary closure, our State Parks team has been cleaning and sanitizing park facilities, addressing routine maintenance projects, and ensuring requisite safety protocols are in place to ensure visitors have the best possible experience.”
The state parks, including Bentsen, were closed at the beginning of the month to prevent mass gatherings from possibly exposing people to the contagious COVID-19 virus.
With the precautions in place, McGee said he feels safe visiting the park.
“There’s not near as many people here, they’re probably staying away just to be safe and it’s not uncomfortable walking around with a mask. I usually take it off when I walk and snap it back on when I see someone approaching. I’m not a germaphobe but at my age, I do not want to get sick.”
McGee said he’s been carrying with him a bottle of hand sanitizer he has in his car to be used during his walks to maintain good hygiene while he’s outdoors.
“I’m all for social distance and waiting to reopen when it’s safe,” McGee said. “It’s a pandemic that’s a lot more serious than anyone, including me, thought it’d be. I think it’s the right call to reopen state parks as long as you practice social distancing. I have neighbors who still have parties on the weekend with 10 to 20 people, ignore the warnings but this is outdoors, most of the people here are respectful. It’s a gift.”
Also opening up to the public this past Monday was Mission’s National Butterfly center, which closed to the public last month.
“We were still operating while we were closed, but just as a skeleton crew to avoid having too many people,” Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director for the Mission Butterfly Center. “Even with the reopening, we’re not expecting a busy season.”
Though it is not a state park, Treviño-Wright said the center decided to reopen on Monday because it serves the same basic functions of a state park.
“We’re an outdoor environmental education center and recreation area,” Treviño-Wright said.
“We reopened the grounds, the visitors center and visitors must be wearing a face covering when they go and interact with others. We are asking people to limit to groups of six or less to maintain social distancing and other sanitation protocols.”
Despite being open to the public, Treviño-Wright said she isn’t expecting the butterfly center to be as busy as it normally is, explaining that this time period is usually when they’re visited by students on a school field trip every day from April to mid-June.
“But with schools closed and high temperatures, we don’t expect many recreational visitors,” Treviño-Wright said. “It’s just sad. We have great relationships with the community and local schools, and have a full house at this time and we won’t be able to do that and spread our message of environmental education.”
Due to local executive orders prohibiting mass gatherings, the butterfly center cancelled its annual Earth Day Festival that was supposed to be held last week. The Butterfly center may also end up cancelling its annual summer camps for kids.
“Mass gatherings may still be a bad idea by then and children are not at all good at social distancing,” Treviño-Wright said. “The idea of putting staff at risk of COVID is not an appealing one.”
Despite the possibility of a low amount of visitors, Treviño-Wright said the National Butterfly center and other parks such as the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park provide some form of relief to the public amid the pandemic.
“We’re offering people an opportunity to go outside, explore and not get crazy from being inside all the time,” Treviño-Wright said. “Maybe we’ll get new visitors from this and expose them to the incredible richness and diversity that belongs in the Rio Grande Valley.”