Memorial Day weekend is shaping up as a grand, celebratory reopening across the Adirondacks and North Country. If initial trends that I’ve seen this month of steady business at local trailheads and parking areas are any indication, I expect to see the Adirondacks flooded with visitors this weekend. I expect this trend to continue throughout the summer. Will hikers stay locally in hotels, once they’re allowed to open, I don’t know, but I’ve seen people regularly at lean-tos and campsites I frequently pass by in hikes throughout Hamilton County and the central Adirondacks that are hardly ever used or are usually empty this time of year. I think that many folk see camping in Adirondacks as a safe, low-risk activity.
As New York slowly claws its way back towards normal American life, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what lies ahead. It’s too soon to tell, given the length of time it takes for a person to fall ill from COVID-19, what the experience is in other parts of the U.S. that started opening back up for social and commercial activities in early May. Initial reports of COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the south are troubling as this region was the first in the U.S. to try reopening. New York is only just beginning the reopening process.
The Adirondack Park has been spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s near 100,000 dead Americans across the U.S., but our region has seen only 124 deaths. Outbreaks at nursing homes in the small cities that surround the Adirondacks, in Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, and at the Fulton Center in Gloversville, are heart-breaking. As we enter Memorial Day weekend, the numbers of COVID-19 infested local residents remain small, and most of the documented cases have resolved.
The Cuomo Administration is managing its COVID-19 reopening by using the 10 Empire State Development regions as management units. Empire State Development, unfortunately, chops up the Adirondack Park into three different regions. As of May 20th, there were three COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the North Country region (Clinton, Essex, Hamilton, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson counties). There were 124 in the Capital District, including Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties, among others, and 63 in the Mohawk Valley region, including Fulton, Herkimer and Oneida counties, among others. Across New York, there were 6,882 people hospitalized with COVID-19.
State data on May 20th shows that there were over 356,000 COVID-19 total confirmed cases in New York State (since the first confirmed case on March 1st), with just over 27,000 of those in Upstate New York, and only 2,367 confirmed cases in the 12 Adirondack Park counties. New York State has seen over 28,000 deaths (including over 5,000 deaths that New York City has listed as “probable” for caused by COVID-19), with just 124 deaths of local residents in the 12 Adirondack Park counties, which have over 1 million residents. For New York State as a whole, we’ve seen the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world at 147 deaths per hundred thousand people (including the “probable” NYC number), while in Adirondack Park counties we’ve seen just 12.4 deaths per hundred thousand.
Here are the county by county COVID-19 cases and deaths numbers as of May 20, 2020.
Clinton County – 94 confirmed cases/4 resident deaths
Essex – 36/0
Franklin – 19/0
Fulton – 186/15
Hamilton – 5/1
Herkimer – 93/3
Lewis – 18/5
Oneida – 817/39
Saratoga – 440/14
St. Lawrence – 195/2
Warren – 241/27
Washington – 222/14
The overwhelming majority of the COVID-19 cases and deaths in the 12 Adirondack Park counties are in areas outside the Adirondack Park blue line. Our low rates of COVID-19 cases and the few deaths that we’ve had to endure once again paint this region as a land apart, if not a world apart. Our distance from major cities, our remote towns surrounded by great forests, and our small population, have helped to buttress the region against the worst of this pandemic, at least for now. In the Adirondacks we were socially distancing before social distancing was cool.
I have to say that when I encounter people on the trails, I find myself stepping off into the witch-hobble and giving folks a wide berth. I’m far less chatty with other hikers than I generally am. I’ve read plenty of reports that inform me that the risks of outdoor transmission are very low. Still, we’re in New York, which has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate globally, dwarfing other places that were devastated like Italy, Spain, and Belgium.
This summer is shaping up to be a summer like no other that any of us has ever experienced in the Adirondacks. Though this spring unfurled the expected blooming trilliums and trout lilies like clockwork, and the bluebirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks have returned to my feeders, the summer is starting off to be very different. Major Adirondack institutions, from The Adirondack Experience (Adirondack Museum), Great Camp Sagamore, Seagle Music Colony, Camp Dudley, the AuSable Club, local art centers, among too many others to name, have said they will not be opening their doors this year. There are many questions for how things will unfold for restaurants and motels/hotels, cabin rentals and timeshares. How does one social distance in a raft trip on the Hudson River or in AuSable Chasm? What will it be like walking on Canada Street in Lake George or Main Street in Old Forge?
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has closed state campgrounds until further notice and closed associated island campsites. There is no High Peaks trail crew at work. The cabins of firetowers are locked, lean-tos are restricted to single groups, and some parking areas like the Adirondack Mountain Reserve on Route 73 have reduced parking. Boat launches are open, and boaters are being asked to follow social distancing protocols. Though the DEC advises New Yorkers to recreate locally, I expect to see lots of people driving to the Adirondacks from far and wide this weekend, and every week and weekend for the rest of the summer.
I have long celebrated that the Adirondack Park as the place in the northeast U.S. that provides essential wildland and wilderness experiences and opportunities each year for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and folks from many other places beyond. Through a sustained multi-generational and bipartisan effort, the State of New York has wisely fostered the public Forest Preserve, the people’s land, as a protected landscape open to everybody. Do the swarms of people who will go to the Forest Preserve this weekend, and in the weeks after, despite the grip of COVID-19 on New York, prove the importance of these lands once again? Unlike prior epidemics in the past, where the Adirondacks was Martha Reben’s healing woods, in COVID-19 times the Park and Forest Preserve are not a refuge that gives life, but rather a refuge to try and find a safe place to live life again in a familiar, if not normal, way. A hike up an Adirondack mountain on a beautiful day provides reassurance, a sense that perhaps, just maybe, everything is not going to hell. I imagine that this desire for reassurance from time in wild places and nature is widely shared throughout the Northeast and that this Memorial Day we’ll see wild places, beaches, and parks swarmed everywhere.
One of the things that make COVID-19 so terrible, and so different from other viruses, is that it’s highly infectious. The last two months in New York have seen changes to daily life through the state shutdown that few ever imagined. The damage and stress to many of us and our neighbors has been immense. Yet, our collective accomplishment in New York has been to slow the spread of COVID-19 to a manageable level while we scaled up a skeletal public health apparatus for quick detection of an outbreak.
The math of this summer troubles me. The inexorable calculus of COVID-19 is that more people = more infection = more death. The state’s shutdown is not sustainable, which is why we’re in a gradual reopening. People need to make a living and people need to move around. The wild places of the Adirondacks are going to be a huge draw given that many people want the chance to try and enjoy the simple pleasure of a hike up a mountain or a paddle on a beautiful lake in the relative safety of nature. In the weeks ahead, we’ll all be watching the state’s list of indicators, especially for infections and hospitalizations, to see if there are regional changes and variations as the state reopens and people travel around.
On this Memorial Day, there’s no map for what’s going to happen in the months ahead. I am not hopeful, and I feel incredibly powerless. The best we can do is to be smart, socially distance, wear a face mask around other people, disinfect everything around us, help our neighbors who need help, and find ways, like a hike in the woods, or a paddle on a lake, that show that not everything is lost, and holds the promise of better days ahead.