The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday clarified the state’s stand on outdoor recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying people are encouraged to get out and enjoy the outdoors but only close to home.
State officials say the spirit of Gov. Tim Walz's “stay at home” order is that people not travel outside their communities for recreation, even if the letter of the law doesn’t say that.
That means don’t get on the highway and drive across the state or the county to go fishing, hunting, hiking or mushroom picking.
This past week, DNR officials have started using the term “community’’ to describe where people should be outdoors during the order, as in "only in your own community." DNR conservation officers have been using the term and DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen posted it on social media.
“The bottom line is this: Folks have to use common sense on what is close to home,’’ said Kim Pleticha, assistant communications director for the DNR. “This is hard on everyone. All Minnesotans have cherished outdoor traditions. But those traditions are going to have to be on hold right now.”
She urged the public to "please embrace the spirit of this.”
It's not clear how long the order may be in place or whether COVID-19 restrictions will linger into May, when fishing and boating usually kick into high gear. Minnesota's most storied outdoor tradition may be the general fishing opener, set for May 9.
Pleticha conceded the state’s message is sometimes vague, but said that’s intended to allow for some flexibility. The state has avoided placing any mileage limit on how far people can or should travel to be outdoors. But she said too many people have been driving to popular state parks and other outdoor areas only to end up in large groups when they get there, exactly what the state wants to avoid to thwart COVID-19.
“We can't have people flocking like that to state parks. It’s not social distancing. It’s not" avoiding people outside your normal contacts, she said. “Here’s the bottom line: Recreate close to home.”
Of course, it remains unclear if that means Duluth residents can or should drive 15 miles to the Knife River to fish for steelhead trout. It’s not likely anyone will try to stop you, or issue a ticket.
Gov. Walz's office Wednesday issued a reminder that the exemption to the Stay at Home order allowing outdoor recreation wasn't a blank check to travel.
"To save lives, we need as many Minnesotans to stay home as possible. The exemptions are meant to be narrow and allow for the continuation of critical health and safety functions. Although the executive order doesn’t prohibit traveling for outdoor recreation, the Governor strongly urges all Minnesotans to stay close to their primary residences,'' the statement noted. "If people do go out, they are asked to maintain strict social distancing. Staying home helps protect your neighbors from spreading COVID-19 and also avoids crowding rural medical facilities. Avoiding this kind of travel makes us all safer and healthier."
The same issue has confused Wisconsinites after their state’s “safer at home” order to travel only for necessary or emergency purposes. Like Minnesota, Wisconsin is encouraging outdoor activities, but only within your “community.” When asked last week if that allowed driving 40 miles to go fishing, a state official said no.
Several Minnesota and Wisconsin counties have already taken action urging usually cherished tourists and part-time residents to stay away until COVID-19 passes, saying residents don’t want to be exposed and noting their small-town medical resources are ill-equipped to handle a major outbreak of disease.
Minnesota cancels governor's fishing party
The annual Minnesota Governor's Fishing opener event, set for May 8-9 this year in Otter Tail County, has been canceled by Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism office. The event is intended to promote fishing tourism in the state. The announcement was made Wednesday.
Nebraska nixes nonresident hunters
The State of Nebraska on Tuesday canceled its spring nonresident turkey hunting season to keep people from traveling into the state during the pandemic.
Pleticha said the Minnesota DNR has not yet considered restricting nonresidents and that all spring hunting and fishing seasons, as of now, will be allowed to open on schedule.
Superior National Forest closes campgrounds
Wednesday, the Superior National Forest announced the closure of restroom facilities at recreation sites across the national forest until further notice. Some trails and roads may be open for use depending on conditions. Rustic campgrounds and group sites will remain shut down until further notice. Fee campgrounds on the forest operated by concessionaires are currently closed for the season. However, as forest officials work through the public health emergency, the reopening of campgrounds may be subject to change. Recreation information pertaining to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will be released soon.
This story was updated at 2:47 p.m. (April 1) with information related to the Superior National Forest and the governor's fishing opener. It was originally posted at 1:05 p.m. (April 1)