WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department is reopening national parks across the country even as the agency withholds data on COVID-19 cases among its employees.
Last week, some of the most visited national parks, including Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, became the latest among dozens of parks reopening. Parks had been mostly closed since March after being inundated with guests who were not observing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A spokesperson for the Interior Department didn't elaborate on how decisions to reopen were being made or whether the agency was tracking coronavirus cases among Park Service staff. The spokesperson referred CQ Roll Call to a prior statement that the "health and safety" of visitors, employees, volunteers and partners continues to be the agency's "highest" priority.
In contrast, other agencies are readily disclosing the number of coronavirus infections among their staff.
The EPA on Tuesday said it's aware of 39 employees who have been infected by the virus and one who has died. The Department of Energy said there have been about 200 current and recovered cases among the agency's roughly 100,000 employees. Four current cases have been confirmed at the Department of Energy's headquarters in Washington, and 14 others have since recovered.
It's unclear why Interior isn't readily making its data public.
"I think the National Park Service and the department should be more transparent than they are," said Phil Francis, a chairman at the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks. "I'm concerned about the safety of staff; I'm concerned about the safety of their families; I'm concerned about the safety of visitors and people in gateway communities."
The partial reopening of national parks comes as public health officials warn of the likelihood of a jump in coronavirus infections with more states reopening and exposing people to more public interactions.
House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., has been critical of Interior's plans to reopen the parks, including the Grand Canyon, which was reopened last Friday, and has demanded more information on the plans.
"I recognize the benefits of reopening national parks and other public land sites when appropriate," Grijlava wrote in a letter last week. "But rushing to reopen national parks prematurely and in the absence of stringent safeguards threatens public health and puts lives in jeopardy."