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Outdoor enthusiasts greet news of reopening in Washington state with cheers of victory

Ted Warren
AP Photo
A protester reels in a fake fish near poles marking a six-foot social distance on a boat on Lake Union in Seattle on Sunday during a protest against Washington state's current ban on recreational fishing.

Last weekend should have seen thousands of anglers flock to Washington state lakes for the always-popular lowland lakes trout opener. Like so much else, opening day of fishing season was canceled due to the coronavirus. But freshwater fishing is coming back soon, along with significant additional elements of the  outdoor recreation scene.

In Olympia on Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that restrictions on fishing, hunting, hiking and golfing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will begin easing next week on May 5. Inslee also announced most state parks, state forestlands and state-managed boat ramps will reopen on that Tuesday. Inslee was joined during an online briefing by the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state lands commissioner and the director of the state Parks and Recreation Commission.

"Reconnecting people with nature is the first step in a long journey back to normalcy," said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. "However, we need to make sure that in reopening our public lands we do not in any way get so lax that we have a return of this problem."

The state officials said the phased reopening would start with day use of public lands. Camping, team sports and large gatherings of people in public will continue to be off limits until further notice. Golfers would be restricted to twosomes unless a foursome was composed solely of people from the same household.

State Fish and Wildlife Department director Kelly Susewind urged outdoor enthusiasts to seek out uncrowded spots in their local area and limit groups to members of their immediate households.

"We're asking you basically to stick with day trips," said Susewind. "Take everything with you that you need so you can leave your home, go out, recreate, come home and not have to engage with anybody beyond your immediate group."

Flotillas of boaters took part in "Let Us Fish" rallies over the past two weeks in Kennewick, Spokane, Wenatchee, Moses Lake and on Sunday in Seattle. The news of the imminent resumption of recreational fishing delighted avid fisherman Ben Hanes of the Tri-Cities. Hanes helped organize many of the on-the-water protests.

"I consider it a big victory," Hanes said in an interview Monday. "We were heard, and that's awesome."

Hanes said recreational fishing never should have been banned to fight the coronavirus.

"I know for a fact that fishing can be done in a socially distanced manner," Hanes said. "I mean, the average fishing pole is over six feet long. So, if you're too close to someone, chances are you're probably going to be whacked in the head."

"My goal when I'm out fishing is to be as far away from anyone as possible so I can have all the fish to myself," he added with a chuckle.

Republican party leaders were also persistent critics of the restrictions on outdoor recreation that the Inslee administration imposed. GOP candidate for governor Tim Eyman piggybacked on several of the angler rallies, blasting out scorching emails against the incumbent governor each time. Democrat Inslee is seeking reelection to a rare third term this fall.

"Inslee is the only governor in the nation to prohibit fishing saying it's unsafe," Eyman wrote on Sunday. "Even the wacko governors of California and Oregon haven't banned it."

Oregon and Idaho did not shut down fishing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But those states did suspend non-resident hunting and fishing licenses to prevent Washingtonians from crossing state lines to engage in pursuits they couldn't do at home.

Like Washington, Oregon closed state parks, boat ramps and beach access points to discourage travel away from home during the pandemic. At this rate, most Washington state parks will reopen before Oregon's.

Oregon outdoor recreation sites are likely to reopen in phases beginning sometime later in May, according to the state Parks and Recreation Department and Gov. Kate Brown. Parks and trails could reopen to day-use visitors first, with camping reinstated later, as will be the case in neighboring Washington.

Federal agencies closed national forest and national park gates in the Pacific Northwest to honor the respective governors' stay-at-home directives. An advisor to Gov. Inslee said one reason for the eight day time lag between Monday's announcement and the May 5 effective date for the partial reopening of state lands is to give time for federal land managers to coordinate a joint reopening, if they so choose.

Throughout this spring it will be a good idea to call ahead or check online to make sure the place you want to go is open.

The coast is not clear

Monday's briefing made it clear that the Pacific Coast of Washington will lag behind the rest of the state in reopening to outdoor recreation. Washington State Parks director Don Hoch said beach parks will stay closed for a longer period to give time to address the concerns of the small towns and county officials along the outer coast. Coastal counties have expressed fears of large crowds descending on the seashore as city dwellers seek to cure pent up cabin fever.

Susewind said the same concerns will keep ocean sport fishing and razor clam digging closed.

"This all started for us with razor clams where you might have 10,000 or 20,000 people going through those small communities on their way to the beach," Susewind said. "We're working with them to make sure they are prepared for an opener should we be able to get to one."

The loosening of restrictions on outdoor recreation comes on the heels of a Friday proclamation that cleared the way for residential and public infrastructure construction to resume, as long as contractors have health precautions and physical distancing rules in place.

The state's general stay-at-home order expires on May 4. Inslee on Monday indicated an extension of some sort for that order would be announced in coming days.

"We all have to realize that we are a long ways from the end of this virus," Inslee said. "We are going to have to maintain plenty of restrictions after May 4. We have made some progress in the last few days."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.