Every Tuesday morning, George Ozuna gathers with a group of volunteers to put in several hours of work ripping out invasive plants in San Antonio parks, part of a years-long effort to restore natural wildlife habitat.

This week, the outbreak of coronavirus didn’t stop them.

“We’re out here right now,” Ozuna said by phone on Tuesday, taking a break from working at Mission San Juan Capistrano on San Antonio’s South Side.

However, because of the spread of the virus, which has caused business shutdowns across the city and placed officials on high alert, they were taking extra social distancing measures, Ozuna said. These included working far apart from each other, avoiding sharing tools when possible, and sanitizing those tools they did share. Their goal is to “continue to work and get stuff done,” Ozuna said.

“Nature frankly doesn’t care if there’s a virus or not, and the invasives don’t care,” he said.

With the spread of the new coronavirus causing school closures and mandatory work-from-home measures across San Antonio, people are looking to nature as a place to get exercise and find a source of peace, even while staying at least 6 feet away from each other, as recommended by health experts.

“As far as we know, the outdoors is relatively safe for all of us,” said Jeanette Honermann, a San Antonio local director of community outreach for outdoor retailer REI. “It’s good for our immune system and it’s great for mental health. It’s just a great activity as long as we’re not breathing on each other or traveling in the same vehicle.”

However, many outdoor organizations recommend that people only take advantage of their local parks. Traveling to big-name destinations could contribute to the spread of the virus among park staff and visitors, and popular parks are often found in rural areas with limited hospitals and doctors.

San Antonio parks remain open to visitors, though the City’s Parks and Recreation Department has closed its indoor spaces, including community centers, and suspended its fitness classes and other programming. The City’s nearly 70 miles of paved greenway trails remain open.

“The part about our linear trails system is, by design, I think it forces you to practices social distancing,” Parks Director Homer Garcia III said.

Most of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 89 state parks, natural areas, and other public lands also remain open for visitors. But on Thursday, the department moved to close to the public its park headquarters, visitors’ centers, park stores, law enforcement offices, and boat registration offices, starting at noon. It had already suspended equipment rentals and stepped up its cleaning regimen.

The department also on Thursday closed Pedernales Falls State Park, Buescher State Park, Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, and Fort Leaton State Historic Site. Officials said the closures were due to the difficulty of implementing measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, adding that no cases have been confirmed at any of the closed public lands.

“While we have worked hard to provide access to state parks through much of spring break, we have now reached a point where changes are imperative for safety reasons,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director, in a prepared statement Thursday morning.

Some parks, including the West Texas oasis of Balmorhea State Park, remain closed for maintenance issues. For specific information on each park, see the TWPD’s alert map.

“We definitely recommend getting outside in nature,” TPWD spokeswoman Stephanie Garcia said in a Tuesday email. “Nature is proven to be beneficial to the development of children and promotes physical and mental health, higher self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and their ability to connect with others.”

TWPD officials are also recommending that visitors purchase day passes online to ensure they have a spot, Garcia said.

“The day passes help ensure access to parks even during busy times and address the growing issue of visitors not being able to get into a popular state parks due to overcrowding,” Garcia said. “Printing permits from home also helps reduce wait times when parkgoers arrive by allowing them to bypass checking-in at the park visitor center.”

On Wednesday, the National Park Service announced they will waive entrance fees at national parks that have not closed because of crowds. Big Bend National Park, the vast 800,000-acre federal preserve in West Texas, is still open but has closed many of its facilities and implemented social distancing rules. On Tuesday, park officials announced the closure of all visitors’ centers, as well as the Boquillas port of entry where visitors can ferry across the Rio Grande to Mexico and back. The park has also canceled guided hikes and other ranger-led events.

However, park’s campgrounds remain open to advanced registrations and visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. So will its Chisos Mountain Lodge and RV campground along the Rio Grande, both operated by private companies.

“We realize these changes have tremendous impact on the visiting public, our partners, and the economic livelihood of local businesses and employees,” park superintendent Bob Krumenaker said in a prepared statement. “Nonetheless, with parallel restrictions being imposed all over the nation, if not the globe, these actions are what we believe are reasonable steps to protect the health of park visitors and employees.

But San Antonio residents don’t need to visit a far-off natural area or park to get in touch with the outdoors, said Lissa Martinez, a Texas Master Naturalist who spends much of her time keeping tabs on downtown open spaces. Some of her favorites are the Headwaters Preserve at Incarnate Word and Olmos Basin Park, both at the headwaters of the San Antonio River.

“I self-define as an urban master naturalist,” Martinez said. “Far-out-in-the-wilderness natural areas are great, but I don’t get out there very often. There are a lot of little pocket parks.”

Like Headwaters, many of the city’s privately owned preserve areas remain open, including Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, a birding hotspot.

As of Tuesday, Mitchell Lake’s trails were open for visitors, according to a post by center director Sara Beesley. Entry is free, but its staff are asking people to check in via a smartphone app and make donations in a box at the entrance. The center’s indoor areas are closed.

“It is the beginning of migration season and the birds are singing,” Beesley wrote. “Look for cardinals, orioles, and hummingbirds as you walk around the gardens.”

Many of San Antonio’s naturalist groups, such as Bexar Audubon Society and Texas Master Naturalists, have canceled their events, while still encouraging members to get outside.

“The timeless rhythms of the natural world form a vital part of all our lives, especially in times like these,” a recent email to Bexar Audubon members stated. “The flowers are still blooming; the birds are still singing; the natural cycles are still operating. Perhaps we can spend some time refocusing our minds and hearts on fundamental priorities while we enjoy birding or just a walk outside.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.