There’s no question that running a business during the COVID pandemic has been hard.

But how about a 125,000-acre spread — four times as large as the city of San Francisco — with 25 million visitors a year? For the last 10 years, Bob Doyle worked as the general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, America’s largest regional park system. He managed 73 parks in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, with 1,300 miles of trails and more than 800 employees.

A 47-year veteran of the agency who started off as a park ranger, Doyle thought he’d seen everything. But no park systems in the Bay Area, California or the nation were prepared for the worst pandemic in 100 years.

Widely respected as a national leader in his field, Doyle retired Dec. 31 after doubling the protected acres in the district.  He says keeping parks open hasn’t been easy. All across the country, the pandemic has closed visitors centers, historic buildings and school field trips. It has sparked health concerns from parks employees — even as parks see record numbers of visitors as people cooped up are desperate to get outside, and other activities, like movie theaters, restaurants, pro sports and amusement parks have been closed.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Q: It seems like ever since the pandemic began, parks have been really crowded. Why?

A: We’ve been the only game in town. Parks were already seeing a surge in popularity before the pandemic at the local, state and national level. But people realized that the governor and the health department said at first that about the only thing you could do is go to a park. And frankly, it was overwhelming. We weren’t prepared.

Q: This has been about mental health as much as physical health, right?

A: Yes. We’re always talking about physical health, physical exercise. People jog, they ride a bike, all those things. But what the health departments were really concerned about in the first couple of months was an increase in domestic violence, and an increase in child abuse. They said that not every family’s doing great. So the counties declared us an essential service. They said we need to get relief for families who are trapped in a crowded house or don’t have the best marriage or best domestic situation, we need the parks to be open.

Q: What kind of increases has your district seen overall in the number of visitors?

A: We are looking at 30-to-50% increase in general. But on the regional paved bicycle trails that go through the neighborhoods to connect all the parks, it’s much higher, more like 50 to 75%.

Q: What kinds of challenges did all those extra people in the parks create?

A: One impact has been constantly trying to get people to pick up their litter. And trying to get them to pick up after their dogs. But the biggest issue was masking. As the nation started to argue more about masks and the Trump administration was not helpful at all, we started getting into rebellion where we were seeing both sides, just like in Washington D.C., with one side saying ‘Why aren’t you enforcing and arresting people for not wearing a mask?’ And the other side was saying ‘I don’t have to wear a mask. I’m healthy.’

Over time the masking has really gotten better. We spent $200,000 on paid advertisements and signage. We put 5,200 signs up in the parks. So we went completely pedal to the metal. We told people ‘Keep your friends and loved ones safe. You know, it’s not just about you. Even if you think you’re Superman, it’s about keeping other people safe.’

Q:  Nice. It worked?

A: I really feel good about that. I really am proud of what our our staff and agency has done. And it’s worked, but I really think the staff is exhausted. It’s cost us a lot of money, and we lost a lot of revenue. We’ve lost about $7 million in revenue.

Q: Why?

A: No weddings. No fee charges for the usual rentals in big picnic areas. We didn’t have big birthdays or anniversaries, or any of the things where somebody rents a picnic area with 100 people. And camping. We didn’t have camping. We didn’t have boat rentals.

Q: How has it been dealing with the park employees?

A: Top to bottom, all of the employees, they’ve been miracle workers. They have been incredible. But the biggest fear is fear itself. And at first people were really scared. Our staff said ‘How are you protecting us?’ In the beginning, we could not get masks. We could not get a supply line for all the things you need to keep people safe. The over-garment when you’re cleaning a restroom. The gloves. All those things were really hard to come by it. So we put together an emergency operations center and worked with the counties to help us get supplies. We got through that. But in the beginning, it was was fear.

Q: How would you say the park system is running now?

A: It’s good. You know, I think now everybody’s hopeful about the vaccines. Park rangers are an essential service. They’re responding to medical calls, emergencies in parks, heart attacks, car accidents. So we’ve been really arguing that we need to get them vaccinated and I think the district is making progress.

Q: And the visitor experience? Is it better now?

A: Well, I think it’s good. What’s been hard is that we have a huge environmental education program with six visitor centers. And those have all been closed. But our naturalist staff started doing online interpretation. We had online campfires and camp outs and even, s’mores and environmental education with wildlife and history talks. There’s just a ton of them on our website. We’ve gotten lots of comments from families.

Q: In hindsight, what would you do differently?

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