LAKEHURST — While many residents appeared to follow pandemic-prompted social distancing regulations as parks and beaches reopened around the state Saturday, at least one lake became overwhelmed with people and would not reopen Sunday. State officials also repeated existing public health guidelines, noting that a handful of parks had been "overrun" the first day reopened to the public.

Gov. Phil Murphy this weekend lifted the April 7 executive order, which had shut state and county parks and golf courses during the continued COVID-19 pandemic. Parking capacity at those sites was capped at 55% and other restrictions remain, banning access to playgrounds and buildings, including bathrooms.

A number of parks run by municipalities had followed along with the April 7 order and restricted access, but also reopened Saturday.

Among them in Ocean County, Lake Horicon, a small borough-run recreational facility in Lakehurst reopened for "passive recreation" which included walking, hiking, jogging, running, bike riding, canoeing and kayaking. The playground, beach and picnic area stayed off limits.

"It didn't take long until we started having crowds of 40 people hanging around. We ruined it for ourselves. I get it. It's frustrating being stuck in the house," Lakehurst mayor Harry Robbins told Townsquare Media.

Robbins said he began getting calls from police and his Office of Emergency Management director reporting the crowd was large and was faced with the option of issuing tickets for violating Murphy's executive order prohibiting gatherings of any size or sending everyone home.

"I told them don't ticket them. Ask them to leave and shut it back off again," Robbins said. Police had not been monitoring the crowd size at the park as it formed, as Robbins said the department is small and officers had other normal duties to perform.

New Jersey State Parks said eight of its parks became "overrun" on Saturday and advised potential visitors to go elsewhere on Sunday. Those parks were:

  • Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in Barnegat
  • Bulls Island Recreation Area in Stockton
  • Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park in Franklin Park
  • Hacklebarney State Park in Long Valley
  • Round Valley Recreation Area in Lebanon
  • Wharton State Forest in Hammonton
  • Wawayanda State Park in Hewitt
  • Worthington State Forest in Columbia
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The NJ Division of Parks and Forestry said in its Facebook post "Remember COVID-19 is not gone. In order to keep parks open and all visitors a safe distance from one another, visit close to home, mask up and make your stay short."

On Saturday, Murphy said he had good early, "anecdotal" reports about those who went to parks and took advantage of mild temperatures and sunshine.

The governor repeatedly warned residents to abide by social distancing protocol and threatened to close down the reopened facilities if the rules weren't followed.

Sunday was expected to be warmer, with temperatures in the 70s but with more clouds than sun on Sunday, according to Chief Meteorologist Dan Zarrow.

In Lakehurst, the lake area would remain closed Sunday, but Robbins said he will give it another try.

"Hopefully people will get the message. They have to be safe. Who wants to get sick? You have to stop the spread. By having gatherings like that you're not gonna," Robbins said.

When Lake Horicon does reopen, lake visitors will be warned via electronic message board that tickets are a possibility.

"I hate handing tickets out for something like this. Who wants to do that? But the threat of it maybe people will get it," Robbins said.

(Includes material copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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