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HVNP ready for influx; Improvements to park made during pandemic

With the state loosening travel restrictions for trans-Pacific travelers today, the Big Island’s most popular tourist destination is preparing for an increase of visitors.

Although Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed for two months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the park has largely resumed normal operations since June, following guidelines from the National Park Service.

While visitation rates to the park have decreased substantially from previous years — preliminary data from July show that nearly 100,000 fewer visitors arrived at HVNP that month compared to July 2019 — little about the park has had to substantially change in order to comply with social distancing recommendations.

“Most areas of the park that were open before the pandemic began are open again for outdoor enjoyment and exercise,” wrote park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane last month, adding that the main areas that remain closed are those that, by their nature, do not allow social distancing — particularly the Kilauea Visitor Center and Thurston Lava Tube.

And with a probable increase in HVNP visitors to come in the next several weeks — the state now allows trans-Pacific travelers to forgo the 14-day quarantine requirement with negative COVID-19 tests prior to and immediately after arriving on the Big Island — the park does not have immediate plans to loosen its own restrictions.

“Our operational approach continues to be centered on examining each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance, and will be regularly monitored,” Ferracane wrote. “We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public areas and work spaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners and volunteers.”

For the visitor center in particular, ranger services have been relocated to that building’s lanai, where they will continue to operate for the foreseeable future.

Although no new areas of the park will open today, HVNP did take advantage of the low visitor numbers during the pandemic to complete several recovery projects in the wake of the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

Those projects included reopening Kilauea Overlook and repairing its parking lot; road repairs on Highway 11, Crater Rim Drive, Chain of Craters and Hilina Pali roads; reopening Byron Ledge Trail between Devastation and Halema‘uma‘u trails; wall repairs on Crater Rim Drive; roof repairs on maintenance buildings; floor repairs in the Education Center and ongoing repairs around Waldron Ledge; and the construction of a pedestrian bridge between the Ledge and Volcano House, which is expected to be completed “soon.”

The park will continue to urge visitors to maintain 6 feet of distance from others, wear face masks when such distances cannot be maintained and practice good hygiene. Most visitors so far have followed such guidelines, Ferracane wrote.

Meanwhile, the Volcano House Hotel, which is located within HVNP but is privately operated, is not accepting reservations until Nov. 1, according to its website.

“We’ve anticipated opening several times already,” said Volcano House interim manager Han Petersen. “I wish we had more to tell everyone. I wish we had more to tell our workers, but I’m not sure what our plans are.”

Petersen said he thinks Volcano House’s plan is to reopen in some capacity by the beginning of November, and gradually ramp up operations until it is eventually able to rehire all of its former employees, who were let go at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I can say that we are all very eager to be open again, soon,” Petersen said.

Elsewhere within the park, Kilauea Military Camp reopened to its customers at the beginning of June.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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