COVID-19 might have thrown a wrench into the usual activities at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site this year, but the sprawling green spaces and community gardens are far from empty.
Early Wednesday afternoon, the national site was bustling with joggers, dog walkers and picnickers. Across the street, at the historic Eatery at the Grant House, the patio was filled with customers eating lunch.
“This is a haven for us, for sure,” said Phillip Kitchens, who was flying kites on the open lawn near Pearson Air Museum with his sons, 3 and 5 years old, and a couple of family friends. They try to take advantage of opportunities to recreate outside as often as they can, he added, especially with the boys’ usual school and summer activities canceled.
“My wife was like, ‘You gotta get out of the house,’ ” Kitchens said with a laugh. “We live about a mile away.”
Tracy Fortmann, the site’s superintendent, said the grounds and trails have remained open through the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic. The parking lots and roads that traverse the site reopened June 9 after a three-month closure.
Fortmann said she’s encouraged people to use the space to get outdoors while remaining socially distanced.
“It is highly rewarding that the park has enabled visitors to safely spend some time outdoors and hopefully find some respite from the pandemic,” Fortmann said.
“I have seen parents with young children here teaching their children to ride a bike, hit a ball, or just run through the green space of the parade ground. It feels really good to see visitors enjoying their time here.”
The pandemic has, however, interrupted business as usual. Indoor facilities have had to close as a “public health precaution,” according to the signs posted to the locked doors of the Pearson Air Museum and the Visitors Center. The Vancouver Barracks building is closed to the public, and the outdoor play structure remains roped off with caution tape.
Additionally, the annual Fourth of July fireworks show was canceled. So were the springtime field trips, which during a usual year would draw thousands of students to the site.
But as Clark County begins to eye Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s graduated reopening plan, Fortmann said park staff are starting to look toward reopening some of those facilities.
“The park is proactively working on protocols which will enable us to move to the next phase once that decision is made,” Fortmann said.
Staff have “developed operational procedures which will enable the public to maintain social distancing when entering open public facilities,” Fortmann continued. “We have signage and other informational materials to help direct the public within buildings and around the national park, such as one-way visitor circulation, maintaining social distancing (and) grouping family households in small visitor areas. As part of our plan for Phase 3, we installed plexiglass shields at front desks.”
Staff will also encourage cloth face coverings whenever visitors are indoors, or interacting with people outdoors.
She added that the park would follow a reopening plan in step with the guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local public health authorities. The National Park Service is encouraging phased reopening plans for all of its sites, with indoor locations reopening last, but “modifications to park operations will be flexible, continually evaluated, and adjusted on a park-by-park basis,” according to the NPS website.
Currently, all Washington counties have been frozen in their respective recovery phases by the governor’s office in response to a recent surge in new coronavirus cases. That freeze, implemented on July 2, will last at least until July 16.
In the meantime, the park is still an outdoor haven for visitors, albeit an unusually quiet one, said Betty Stoltz, who’s been serving as a volunteer at the fort’s Historic Demonstration Garden for the last 10 years.
This year feels a little different. While the summers are usually accompanied by a lower volume of visitors — no school tours, as Stoltz pointed out — the people meandering through the garden right now seem extra cautious. Most wear face masks, she said.
The number of volunteers who maintain the garden also had to be scaled back this year to ensure proper social distancing on the plot, Stoltz continued. Most years have around a dozen volunteers, but this year it’s a crew of about eight. And the fate of the produce grown at the garden, usually used for historic cooking demonstrations, will also change, she added.
“When the fort is operating, they have a demonstration showing 1840s techniques,” Stoltz said. “This year, assuming the kitchen is not going to open for the foreseeable future, we’re going to give more to the food pantries.”