Pawtuckaway State Park to limit COVID-19 spread

Vehicles line the Deerfield entrance to Pawtuckaway State Park last Saturday.

Town officials from Nottingham and Raymond are calling on Gov. Chris Sununu to order the immediate closure of Pawtuckaway State Park to keep away visitors who could be spreading the coronavirus.

The request comes as the governor says he intends to keep state parks open.

The two neighboring towns sent a petition to Executive Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, on Wednesday seeking action after raising concerns about the crowds being drawn to the park’s hiking trails.

They’re also worried about what will happen if the 192 campsites at the park are allowed to open as scheduled on May 1.

Pawtuckaway State Park is located in Nottingham and Deerfield, but it borders Raymond, which has a Hannaford supermarket, restaurants and other retailers that attract park visitors.

Raymond Town Manager Joe Ilsley said more than 100 vehicles were at the park’s Deerfield entrance last Saturday.

Pawtuckaway is a popular destination for visitors from Massachusetts, which has seen its cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — soar to more than 6,600. Of those cases, nearly 800 were in Essex County and more than 1,300 in Middlesex County, which border Hillsborough and Rockingham counties in southern New Hampshire.

Rockingham County has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state, which state and local officials say may be partly related to its proximity to Massachusetts.

While cases south of the border are escalating, “it’s not about blaming Massachusetts or anything like that,” Sununu said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

Sununu also said he wasn’t considering closing any state parks as long as park visitors practice social distancing.

”These places are packed”

Prescott, who shares the concerns of Nottingham and Raymond officials, said he has reached out to the governor’s office seeking the park’s closure.

“I’ve made myself as clear as I could,” he said. “It really is a huge concern for myself and the towns of Nottingham and Raymond.”

Ilsley said he’s concerned that if the park stays open, visitors will continue to come from high-risk areas.

The resulting surge in local population density will put a greater demand on the town’s private sector to meet the local demand for essential items, Ilsley said.

“We’ve seen a large number of Massachusetts plates. These places are packed and we’re trying to protect our communities and we believe the governor will see it, too,” he said.

An increase in visitors also raises the risk of exposure for first responders, he said.

“Our stance is right now we want to ensure the safety of our first responders because we want them to be healthy in the event this worsens,” said Ben Bartlett, chairman of the Nottingham Board of Selectmen. “We want to limit the amount of exposure to people.”

Local private campgrounds have agreed to remain closed until it’s safe to reopen.

Ilsley insisted that the petition isn’t a criticism of Sununu’s handling of the crisis and that local officials are appreciative of the steps he has taken to slow the spread of the disease.

Bartlett said he’s hopeful the governor will order the park’s closure.

Sununu closed beaches on the Seacoast last weekend at the urging of police chiefs who were concerned about the crowds they attract.

“The state beaches are closed. It should really be the same with the state parks as well,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett made clear that he wasn’t pointing the finger at any particular area for the spread in Rockingham County.

“I do not want to make this New Hampshire versus Massachusetts,” he said.

Thursday, June 04, 2020