Young people enjoy a wet ride on the New River.

On the heels of a grueling winter and spring brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many folks simply want to get outside and play.

Now that West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has announced reopening guidelines for outdoor recreation companies, southern West Virginia is ramping back up to greet visitors from both the more immediate area and several outlying states. Among recent announcements under West Virginia Strong - The Comeback, state whitewater rafting outfitters can resume operations on May 21 utilizing specific safety precautions.

Roger Wilson, CEO of Lansing-based Adventures on the Gorge, is among those who gladly welcome the return to business when his company resumes operations on May 22 for rafting, fishing, ziplines, lodging, restaurant and retail.

"It is very helpful to have such well thought-out guidance from Governor Justice and his team, and I appreciate his leadership," Wilson said Friday in an email response provided by Mesereau Travel Public Relations. "Governor Justice knows that whitewater rafting is a core business in West Virginia, and as someone in tourism himself, he understands how important the business is not only to Adventures on the Gorge but also to our employees, their families and our communities.

"We're fortunate because our regular season gets started in the spring, and we're not that far behind with this year's opening. While it's clearly a challenging year, we have many reasons to be optimistic. First, our business of adventure lends itself to social distancing already. You can raft with your own friends and family groups to keep your bubble small. Rock climbing is another adventure that allows for social distancing. Plus, all of our accommodations feature private entries — and many of them are freestanding — which is what guests want."

Wilson says requests for booking information from AOTG have experienced a recent uptick, and that should only increase. "Phone calls to our reservations center have picked up in the past few weeks, and I do believe we will see call volume increase even more now that there is more clarity," he said. "We've seen a lot of interest this year in rafting passes because travelers can buy a pass and then choose any date in the year with just 48 hours advance reservation. That means travelers have a lot of flexibility and can choose to time their trip when they are comfortable."

A May 8 press release indicated AOTG revealed its tentative reopening plans in an online webinar, while awaiting guidance from state government and health officials on how the company would come out of pandemic-induced hibernation. Wilson credited resort staffers, from rafting guides to housekeepers, for providing input in devising a reopening plan for the "multi-faceted" operation. "As all of America learns how to navigate untraveled waters, that happens to be one thing we're already very good at," he said in the release. "Plus, we will be using lots of bleach."

The state-mandated guidelines for rafting resumption include a requirement which limits group size on each raft to six guests and one guide. Groups are limited to patrons who arrive together and/or live together, while mixed groups will be prohibited. Also, groups on buses must be spaced 6 feet apart, and the maximum capacity permitted on a 55-person bus is 18 guests. Everyone on the bus must wear face coverings, and all windows must be down. Buses must be properly sanitized after each use.

Fifteen-passenger shuttles may be used only to transport one group at a time. Everyone on the shuttle must wear face coverings, and all windows must be down. Shuttles must be properly sanitized after each use. Outfitters must also stagger the loading and unloading of rafts and launching and takeout of rafts to maintain proper social distancing. Guests must remain on the buses/rafts until their group loads or unloads.

Wilson noted that AOTG guests will be asked to complete a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) health questionnaire, and guests who have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to disease-stricken contacts will be asked to reschedule their trip. The resort is also encouraging New River rafters use one- and two-person kayaks as opposed to eight-passenger rafts where possible.

Among the other safety guidelines, AOTG staff will check temperatures and symptoms daily and wear masks and gloves; guides will cover their faces with buffs on the river; cabins will be saturated with a hydrogen peroxide product disseminated by foggers, followed by cleanings with bleach and other disinfectants; indoor seating at Smokey's, the resort's main restaurant, will be half of the normal capacity, and outdoor seating will be added at the outdoor wedding deck; and Treetops Zipline Canopy Tour protocols have been enhanced to include treating gloves, helmets and harnesses. Related hashtags include #AdventuresOnTheGorge, #AlmostHeaven and #VisitWV.

Heather Johnson, co-owner of another local outfitter, River Expeditions in Oak Hill, says the company is "ready and anxious for our first trip next week."

Johnson said River Expeditions will join other outfitters in following guidelines for reopening responsibly. "Obviously, business will not be roaring back full steam, but at least our guests know that we're here waiting for them whenever they are ready to travel," she said.

While Memorial Day weekend is "typically big for us," Johnson suspects it may be "lackluster" this year "considering we only got the go-ahead to reopen just last Thursday. We're hopeful the pent-up demand for outdoor activities will help revive business going forward, though."

The company is gradually bringing back more staff each week, Johnson said. "Our staff and guests are hearty and resilient, so we'll adapt and do whatever it takes to enjoy the New River Gorge safely and responsibly," she said.

After making improvements on its 1,500-acre resort over the past two months, staff members from ACE Adventure Resort in Oak Hill are ready to get back out on the river.

"We're looking forward to offering America's best whitewater again," marketing director Haynes Mansfield said in a press release. "After so much time cooped up at home we feel that a short drive to West Virginia for a rafting trip in the remote and scenic New River Gorge followed up by a night in one of our freestanding mountain cabins is just what people are craving.

"We're closely following all guidelines from the state as they are being announced to ensure our guests can focus on having fun on the river, in our cabins, or any one of our on-base activities."

This year, ACE will offer free rafting trips on the family-friendly upper section of the New River Gorge to any child 6-11 years old that is accompanied by a full-paying adult.

For more information, visit https://aceraft.com/.

Teri Harlan, administrator of the Fayette County Health Department, says rafting companies have good safety plans to resume operations.

"We are working closely with the rafting companies," Harlan said. "They all have really good plans in place to keep people safe.

"We are comfortable with their plans at this point, but will continue to work with them as things progress."

While Fayette County stood at 39 confirmed COVID-19 cases through Wednesday morning, Harlan said the department still recommends that no pools open and that no fairs and festivals take place at least through the end of June. "We will certainly reassess that as we learn more and as the governor continues to open things up," she said. "We continue to urge people to use precaution. Continue to practice physical distancing, wash your hands frequently and properly, and when you are around others, please wear a face covering."


• In the New River Gorge National River, campgrounds, restrooms and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center remain closed. However, trails are still open.

According to Eve West, the NRGNR's chief of interpretation, visitor services and cultural resources, restrooms at Fayette Station, Cunard and the Grandview main overlook area opened on Thursday, May 21. All other facilities, however, are not scheduled to open until sometime after Memorial Day weekend, and that date is undetermined.

As more people begin arriving in the Mountain State to get their outdoor recreation rush, West said park officials keep stressing safety. "We're posting additional signage at the busier trailheads to reinforce social distancing message and maintaining our stance of keeping group size at picnic shelters to groups of 25 or fewer people," she said. Restrooms at the busier river access points are being opened.

West and fellow NRGNR officials advise people to "avoid popular trails like Endless Wall, Long Point and Kaymoor Top. If a parking lot is full, consider hiking somewhere else. We have over 100 miles of trail in the park, so spread the love."

Hikers can also access Kaymoor trail from a trailhead near Cunard, and the Brooklyn Mine and Southside trail in the same area are also possibilities. In the Middle Gorge, there are trails along Glade Creek starting from the campground. In the southern end, the Gwinn Ridge trail off Brooks Mountain Road or the Big Branch Trail off River Road are available. Grandview hiking possibilities instead of the Grandview Rim Trail include Big Buck, Little Laurel or Woodland Loop. "Not all restroom facilities will be open, so plan accordingly," West said. "Please maintain social distancing on trails and continue to practice Leave No Trace."

"Safety of visitors and staff is of utmost concern, which is, in part, why we are maintaining our current posture at present," West concluded. "Personal responsibility is part of that equation, though. Again, maintain social distancing, avoid busy areas, practice personal hygiene in keeping hands clean and away from your face, and use good judgement when you do make the choice to visit shared public spaces."

For more information, visit https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/hiking.htm for hiking trail information and https://www.nps.gov/neri/learn/photosmultimedia/multimedia.htm to virtually visit the park

• "From the tourism standpoint and as the CVB director, the rafting and outdoor adventure business is extremely important to our industry in Fayette County," said Becky Sullivan, executive director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce/New River Gorge CVB. "One of our busiest and the summer opening weekend is coming up so it's perfect timing for rafting trips and ziplining to be able to open back up safely. The outdoor adventure companies have all agreed to the guidelines set by the governor and have new procedures in place for trip safety.

"The industry leaders are all ready to get started with their season and get their employees back to work. After months of refunds, rescheduling and cancellations, they are elated to be able to put a schedule out there with specific instructions and get started with guided outdoor adventure."

"Along with the outdoor adventure industry leaders, the local small business owners are preparing and ready with new safety and sanitary procedures in place for any incoming visitors following the leadership of the Fayette County Health Department," Sullivan added.

The chamber group is working with the health department on a playbook for small businesses with recommendations to help them open safely. When it is ready, that resource will be available to all businesses, not just Fayette County Chamber of Commerce members.

• Maura Kistler, a co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, said her company, as well as some others, are currently not prepared to open and are doing business by appointment.

"When Teri Harlan and Anita Stewart (Fayette County Health Department) tell us that we have topped out (in COVID-19 cases) and are heading down, we will resume operating more normally," said Kistler. "We want to ease in and see how it goes."

"Out-of-town climbers are very anxious to get back here," said Kistler. "Most are waiting for the high sign from the local climbers. Many local climbers have been getting out this whole time. There is so much climbing available in the New, Meadow and Gauley river corridors that it is easy to stay away from other people, dial back the difficulty, and stay safe while you recreate. I think we are all a bit anxious about how this is going to go, but I believe that nature therapy is more important that ever so I support these outfitters trying to figure it out."

"Our federal government has abjectly failed, so we need to figure it out on our own because we can't stay locked down forever," Kistler added.

• Under guidelines issued by the governor's office on May 14, guided mountain climbing tours and guided fishing trips were among the activities that could resume on Friday, May 15. Elaina Arenz, owner of New River Mountain Guides, which offers guided climbing tours and various instructional courses, says her business is going to delay opening until at least June 1 and then reassess a potential restart date.

The "wait-and-see" approach will allow the business to balance pending arrival of out-of-state guests while "being sensitive to local resources," said Arenz. Maintaining considerations for the physical health of visitors and locals alike while also considering the "economic health" of the area is a "delicate balance," she said.

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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