NJ State Parks: Popularity explosion after COVID-19 vaccine incentive

TRENTON, New Jersey – As New Jersey residents prepare to go out for July 4, state parks are already experiencing an explosion in popularity, with more than 100,000 people signing up for annual passes to parks as part of New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine incentive.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy announced in May that any state resident who has at least one photo by July 4 can get a free state park pass, which would cost residents $ 50 this year.

The 100,000 registrations are up from nearly 50,000 earlier this month, weeks after the program was announced, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the parks of New Jersey. It eclipses the roughly 5,000 annual passes typically purchased in a year.

While it’s not clear how many people were motivated to get vaccinated by the free park pass, the state eclipsed its target of 4.7 million vaccinations last week in the middle of the year. attraction.

The 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns had already had more people heading out as the number of Americans who hiked last year increased by 8.1 million, the biggest gain over a year never recorded, according to the Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the outdoor industry. Association.

On a recent weekday, a parking lot at Island Beach State Park, a 10 mile stretch of mostly undeveloped shoreline and one of the state’s most popular beaches, was crowded but not filled to capacity . The park‘s beach bar was buzzing with customers. Colorful umbrellas flapped in the ocean breeze.

The Department of Environmental Protection urges park visitors to arrive early to make sure they have a spot at parks like Island Beach which often reach their maximum capacity, as passes do not guarantee entry.

Linda Jakuboski, of Pine Beach, said she had been coming to Island Beach for 35 years and noticed it seemed busier than usual for a weekday. She did not receive the vaccine pass incentive, but did receive the vaccine. If the peak in annual passes causes overcrowding, she’s ready to head there early and frequent one of the less crowded sections of the beach.

“I’m so used to being here. This is my home,” she said. “It’s like a second home, really.”

Bob Smith, a retiree from nearby Manchester, said he was new to Island Beach but was impressed enough to buy an annual pass. He was not given an incentive but was vaccinated, he said.

If it’s crowded, he’ll just enjoy the pool in the 55-plus community where he lives, he said. But crowds were no longer a big concern now that more people are being vaccinated.

“It’s nice to see people’s faces,” he said.

About 70% of adults are vaccinated in the state. Most COVID-19 restrictions like face masks have ended.

Afaf Muhammad, of Jersey City, has been camping for years and has involved his two daughters in Team Wilderness, a Jersey City-based nonprofit aimed at bringing out black people and other children of color.

She chose not to get the vaccine, but welcomed the idea of ​​bringing more people, especially people of color, outside. The Outdoors Foundation study found that three-quarters of people participating in the outdoors are white.

“I think it’s so important for the kids to be in the fresh air. We live in social housing. You don’t really see too many trees and grass here,” she said. . “You’re not going to see too much real nature. The (city’s) parks aren’t really nature reserves like a state park would be.”

His daughter Aracelis Hannah is 18 and started Team Wilderness travel five years ago. She, too, chose not to get the vaccine, but said people should take advantage of state parks.

“You don’t know what the wilderness might do to you, change you … to make you more aware of your surroundings,” she said.

Juan Melli, an avid hiker and senior vice president of public affairs firm Mercury, said he got the vaccine pass but would have gotten the vaccine even without the incentive. He has noticed more people on hiking trails across the state since the program began.

“Exposing people to the outdoors – I think COVID did it anyway: your weekend plans are canceled. There is no place to shop, so what can you do? “So if that raises awareness, that’s great.

“I just hope it gets people thinking more of the outdoors.”

When asked if state parks can handle the increase in annual pass holders, DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said in an emailed statement that the parks welcome millions of visitors a year.

Attendance in 2020 was around 14 million, up from 17 million, although parks were closed for about a month from April and admission was limited due to COVID-19.

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