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New focus on sanitation keeps the popular travel spots open for motorists who need a break or a bathroom

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOLEEN ODENS - A sanitation worker cleans a restroom at a rest area off Interstate 5 in Oregon. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses have done everything they can to flatten the curve. But they're not the only ones taking these precautionary measures. Rest areas and campsites across the state are taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Those areas have seen increased attention as summer continues and people crisscross the state to recreate. Some travelers are hesitant to go outside, while others head to the wilderness to hike, camp or even road trip to other states.

"COVID-19 has changed so much in the way [the Oregon Department of Transportation] looks at public safety," said ODOT's public information officer, Don Hamilton. "It's a wide-ranging effort that [we are all working on] to make sure we're keeping the public as safe as we can."

Across Oregon, rest areas are generally managed by either the Oregon Travel Information Council or ODOT.

The Oregon Travel Information Council (TIC) oversees 25 rest areas across the state. Overall, the rest areas have had more than a million fewer visitors in the first five months of this year compared to the first five months of 2019, according to counts provided by the travel council. Rest areas statewide were not being used as frequently in the first few months of the pandemic, but are gradually gaining more visitors as the state opens up.

Despite less frequent use, these rest areas did remain open throughout the pandemic.

"It was important to us [that our rest areas stay open] because we support transportation, and that includes a lot of large trucks that deliver goods to those that need it," said Heather Swanson, Rest Area Program Manager for the travel information council. "If we had shut down, it would have become really problematic for these large truck drivers because, for safety reasons, they need to get off the road and take a break."

Although rest areas are currently open, they are not there to be a destination for activities, but rather a place where people can take a breather and use the restroom, Swanson said. In fact, the rest areas managed by the TIC have a 12-hour rule that limits the amount of time people can spend there.

In order to decrease the spread of COVID-19, rest areas managed by the TIC have increased the frequency of their cleaning protocols from one deep clean with one or two touch-ups during the day to two deep cleans and more touch-ups as needed. Staff members use green cleaning products, typically peroxide-based, as mandated by Gov. Kate Brown.

The restrooms are also equipped with auto-flushers, motion-activated sinks and soap dispensers and automatic hand dryers, so people do not have to touch different surfaces. Restroom doors are being kept open so people can avoid touching the handles, and social distancing signage has been posted at all TIC rest areas to encourage people to practice physical distancing.

Masks are not required because rest areas are not considered an inside gathering spot for people.

"We looked into making people wear masks with the new mask update and we're told that that wouldn't apply to the rest areas," Swanson said. "People are still more than welcome to, and we've provided our staff with masks, gloves and the proper equipment needed to keep themselves and others safe. But it's just not something we can really enforce out there, either."

As the state began to open up, Swanson wasn't concerned about the spread of the virus via a rest area.

PHOTO: DEAVEN KONOPACKY - A Baker Valley rest area with few visitors. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rest areas saw an overall decrease in visitors. As the state opens up, more people are beginning to stop at these locations, and rest areas are taking action to decrease the spread of the virus. "There's only so much that we can do, but people aren't really spending a great deal of time in there — they're typically in and out pretty quickly — and our staff is really, really great about keeping things clean. They want everyone to be safe and have a positive experience," Swanson said. "So, I'm not terribly worried. It's not like people stay inside the restroom buildings for any longer than they have to."

Oregon Travel Information Council rest areas will continue to follow the safety precautions for the foreseeable future, as an end to the danger of coronavirus spread does not seem to be coming anytime soon, Swanson said.

Rest areas managed by ODOT have also remained open throughout the pandemic. Similar to Oregon Travel Information Council rest areas, ODOT rest areas are taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Each rest area is evaluated to determine the best practices for that area, and all of them are being cleaned more aggressively. ODOT will evaluate their cleaning practices as more things open up, but rest areas will continue to be deep cleaned for now.

"We will make sure that every effort that we make with our rest areas will be as effective a response to public health issues as possible," Hamilton said. "We're doing everything we can to make sure that we are inhibiting the spread of COVID-19 [at] our facilities. This is crucial ... to keep people safe from the contagious illness."

Campsites taking precautions 

Oregon State Parks manages 250-plus parks across the state. In order to reopen these parks and campsites, public health guidelines set by the Oregon Health Authority must be met and the site must have a suitable number of staff and equipment to keep individuals safe. Once reopened, these parks must keep the visitor number below capacity and encourage guests to follow both park and COVID-19 guidelines.

Along with campsites managed by Oregon State Parks, some in Oregon are run by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). Currently, ODF-managed campsites remain closed to overnight use, although some have reopened as day-use areas, said ODF state forest public affairs specialist Jason Cox.

In order to ensure the safety of visitors, ODF is keeping restrooms on a twice-daily cleaning schedule or, where staffing capacity or remote location makes that impossible, putting up signage indicating the restroom is not on a twice-daily schedule, Cox said. ODF is also encouraging the public to bring hand sanitizer and be prepared to take care of their own sanitary needs.

Cate Bikales, a student at Lincoln High School in Portland, is one of two summer interns working for Amplify, a Metro-supported project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Amplifying voices

This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports two summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at oregonmetro.gov/news.


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