MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday ordered the closure of 40 Wisconsin’s state parks, forests and recreational areas primarily in southern and southeastern Wisconsin to help reduce overcrowding and vandalism and to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Evers’ warned that the order could be followed by more closures if the public doesn’t follow social distancing guidelines and vandalism continues. The sites that will close indefinitely starting Thursday night include some of the state’s most popular hiking and camping destinations, which had been a place for cooped up families to spend time outdoors during the stay-at-home order.
Recreational areas and state parks had been exempt from the stay-at-home order Evers issued last month, which runs through April 24. Entrance fees had been waived and state park offices and visitor centers were closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, growing difficulty with ensuring social distancing compliance, dwindling cleaning supplies and mounting trash are some of the challenges faced by our state parks staff,” Evers said in announcing the closures. “We have to address the growing public health and safety concern and protect Wisconsinites.”
He said the situation had reached the point where public safety in the parks and surrounding communities took precedence over keeping the locations open.
The closures include Devil’s Lake State Park, the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Blue Mound State Park, Governor Dodge State Park, New Glarus Woods State Park and Dells of The Wisconsin River State Natural Area. The only closed park that isn’t in southern Wisconsin was High Cliff State Park on Lake Winnebago in Calumet County.
Also on Thursday, Religious groups and a conservative law firm asked Evers to clarify whether churches can offer drive-up services for Good Friday and Easter, saying not allowing them could be unconstitutional.
The request comes after Republican state lawmakers last week asked Evers to roll-back his stay-at-home order so that in-person Easter and Passover services could be held.
Evers denied last week’s request from lawmakers. His spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a message about the latest request.
Many churches have moved to broadcasting services online in order to comply with Evers’ order prohibiting groups from gathering to worship as they normally would.
The letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, in cooperation with Wisconsin Family Action Council and other religious groups, cited a memo from nonpartisan attorneys for the Legislature saying that outdoor services that adhere to social distancing guidelines would be permissible. But the letter said some local government officials are using the order to prohibit such services from happening.
“We understand the Governor’s responsibility to facilitate the safety of all Wisconsinites in the midst of this pandemic,” WILL President Rick Esenberg wrote to Evers. “But we cannot lose our heads. And state and local actors cannot use the occasion of a public health threat to run roughshod over the right to the free exercise of religion.”
As of Wednesday, there had been 99 deaths and nearly 2,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Under previous Evers orders, all schools and nonessential businesses have also been ordered closed. Evers tried to stop in-person voting in Tuesday’s election as another way to slow the virus, but the Legislature refused and the state Supreme Court blocked the governor’s order.