With Pre-registration and Masks, Israelis Cautiously Return to National Parks

It would be premature to state that masses jammed the 20 national parks that reopened this week after coronavirus lockdown eased

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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A family having a picnic at the Ein Afek Reserve, May 9, 2020.
A family having a picnic at the Ein Afek Reserve, May 9, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Under the lowest step of the amphitheater in Caesarea was an abandoned surgical mask. The magnificent Roman Theater at this national park, built in the Herodian period, has probably seen other debris, such as snack wrappers, left behind by other visitors. Nowadays, with a “return to normal,” it seems that even litter has undergone a transformation, adapting to the coronavirus era.

It would be premature to state that masses jammed the 20 national parks that reopened this week, less than one third of the number of official parks in Israel. The new guidelines don’t allow for spontaneous trips, as pre-registration, according to hour of day, is required. By last Thursday, no spots were available at the Banias Nature Reserve for the coming Saturday, or between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. at the Beit Guvrin National Park. Entries were allowed subject to wearing a mask and having one’s temperature checked.

Raya Shurki, Director of the Community Division at the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, walked between groups that kept their distance from one another, reminding those who had taken off their masks to don them. “But there are hardly any people there” objected someone, while obeying the instruction. Most people are disciplined, says Shurki. Only 400 people showed up at the park, which usually sees 5,000 people on Saturdays.

People hiking at the Ein Afek Reserve, May 9, 2020.
People hiking at the Ein Afek Reserve, May 9, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

The kiosk and shop are closed to visitors, but can be accessed via a staff member. A video display is still closed, but for people who’ve been locked up for weeks this didn’t matter. The sea, archaeology and no over-crowding seemed a big deal.

Further south, colorful para-sails near the Hadera power station indicated a large presence on the beach. A convenience store at the Caesarea gas station was bustling, with people happy to have coffee or ice cream on the external stairs of the restaurant located there. In woods along the highways, the number of picnics indicated an almost normal Saturday.

Nearby, at the Taninim Stream Reserve, the parking lot was almost empty. Pre-registered visitors had their temperature monitored and got a bracelet showing their allotted time slot. A Parks Authority manager showed some understanding for people arriving without having registered. If there was room, he let them in. “After the last two months, it isn’t strange to pre-register” said one visitor. Only 80 visitors came, with the normal number standing at 1200. The longer pathway was closed, since it doesn’t fit the time slots allotted to visitors.

A man gets his temperature checked at the entrance to the Taninim Stream Reserve, May 9, 2020.
A man gets his temperature checked at the entrance to the Taninim Stream Reserve, May 9, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

At the Ein Afek Reserve, 150 people an hour were let in, with all 900 slots taken. There are usually between 1,500 and 3,000 visitors on Saturdays. The catfish there disappeared during the lockdown, in the absence of people illegally feeding them. The water buffalo seemed the same. People appeared to have fewer picnics, leaving after touring the park. There was much less garbage, probably due to fewer school trips, said the site’s manager.

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