Jul. 30—Unlike many public venues, Lake Metroparks received record-high attendance in 2020 when it broke 4 million visits in the period from September 2019 to August 2020, a nearly 19% increase from the previous year.
After that, according to Lake Metroparks Executive Director Paul Palagyi, "Our question was, 'How far is our visitation going to come down towards...the level it was at '19?'"
What surprised Palagyi was that, as more public venues re-opened in 2021, visitation didn't return to previous levels. Rather, the park district saw an increase of 30,000 visits in the period from September 2020 to August 2021.
"I think COVID took away so many other options that people went to their parks and discovered some things," he said, adding, "They've discovered something that, even when other opportunities came back, they still go to the parks."
One area resident, Amanda Lightner, said that the pandemic gave her and her family a new appreciation for the parks.
"Before the pandemic, they were just, like, a nice little bonus of living in Lake County...But, once the pandemic hit, they just became a necessity," she said, noting that her family went from visiting the parks around once a month before COVID-19 to going at least four days a week during the pandemic.
They continue to visit the parks often, learning new things about local wildlife such as the red eft, which are young eastern newts, as well as how to catch frogs.
Citing a 2020 poll from the National Recreation and Park Association, Palagyi said that 83% of adults surveyed found "visiting their local parks, trails and open spaces were essential for their mental and physical well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic."
Shortly after the pandemic began, he said that park officials had to address full parking lots across the board, from the district's most popular park, Chagrin River Park in Willoughby and Eastlake, to smaller and lesser-known parks such as Baker Road Park in Madison Township. Hygiene was another concern, as staff members worked to spray picnic tables, close water fountains and follow current health guidance as it changed over time.
"The parks never closed," Palagyi noted, with the brief exceptions of the Farmpark and golf courses.
In addition to basic health guidance, the park district faced other unique challenges. Staff at Penitentiary Glen Reservation and the Farmpark had to care for animals while social distancing.
If one team member tested positive, all members on that shift had to stay home. The district had to ensure that each team had personnel who could deal with each animal's needs.
While some park staff worked to keep the parks clean and safe and the animals in good shape, others worked to virtually educate visitors about the activities they could enjoy at the parks.
One of those activities was creek walking. According to Palagyi, staffers realized early on that creek walking could be an alternative to swimming pools in summer 2020.
"We have a lot of access to great creeks, and so, our very creative staff started doing videos and social media posts saying, listen, take your kids on creek walks. Here's a bunch of safe places you can park that are close to creeks," he said.
He added that staff members also encouraged scavenger hunts and taught residents how to find common wildlife at the parks. Some of the videos were used for virtual schooling.
"I was really, really proud of the creativity of our staff in that time," Palagyi said.
The district continues to offer both self-guided programming, including the "Binge Walk Your Parks" program, and naturalist-led programming such as guided creek walks.
"One of the things that we've started now that kind of came out of...what was happening during COVID, was giving people the opportunity to go do something in the park without signing up for a program and without going at the time that we have it available," Palagyi said.
At the start of the pandemic, staff members also discussed how to continue two traditional Farmpark events — Halloween Hayrides and Country Lights — in a COVID-compliant manner. Palagyi noted that both events were re-created as drive-through events in 2020 and 2021.
Both saw increased attendance in 2020 compared to 2019. He said that many visitors preferred the drive-through format, which made it easier for entire families to attend, including young children and grandparents.
Due to staffing shortages, both will continue as drive-through events in 2022.
"It was kind of a surprise, and it's been hard for us because we like doing the big show, we liked doing the hay rides and the toy building, you know, it was hard to let go of those, but we didn't have a choice then," he said. "Now, it's been a question of, 'well, when we can go back, do we go back?'"
Another change was the decision to keep the winter lights on longer at Chapin Forest Reservation in Kirtland. In 2021, Palagyi said that staff members decided to keep the lights activated in late fall and winter to allow people to walk the trail after sunset. Previously, they were only used on nights with enough snow for cross-country skiing.
"We never would have thought to do that in a normal cycle, and now it's a normal thing," he said, noting that the park district is still deciding how early to activate the lights this year.
In addition to seeing increased park visits, Palagyi heard from previous park visitors who decided to explore new parks after the start of the pandemic. He also emphasized that the increased attendance goes beyond any one park system.
"This is not unique to Lake Metroparks," he noted, stating his belief that in addition to Lake Metroparks, the county's network of city, township and village parks, along with those of institutions such as the YMCA, all benefit the community in unique ways.
Palagyi noted that visitation to the parks was slightly down this past April and May though he added that it was also a wet spring. He said that June visitation numbers were strong.
"The increase in visitation we experienced during the pandemic (19% in 2020) illustrates just how important it is for people to be able to get out and enjoy nature," said John Redmond, president of the Lake Metroparks Board. "And the fact that our visitation continues to rise (another 1% in 2021) tell us that our park visitors agree."
Lightner said the Metroparks have helped change their lifestyle.
"It was our sanity, you know," she said. "We had no other way to get out...It gave us somewhere safe to go where we could still get out as a family other than our backyard. And it just helped us learn to love the outdoors."