RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — As Phase 1 of Governor Ralph Northam's 'Forward Virginia' plan for reopening continues, many recreational activities are gradually starting back up, including golf courses, outdoor fitness classes, and even Virginia Beach opening up to recreational beach use this Memorial Day weekend.
But one form of outdoor activity that officials are strongly discouraging is caving.
Over recent weeks, COVID-19 guidelines from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), while encouraging socially distant fishing and hunting, has closed off access to all caves on lands owned by the state.
But the VDGIF only has regulatory authority over cave access on agency lands – not any other caves in the state, of which there are many, both private and public.
This week, the Virginia Cave Board released a statement asking people to avoid all caving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board's statement cites difficulties, if not impossibilities, in maintaining six feet of social distance while caving, as well as the potential for infected people to transfer COVID-19 to North American bats.
Scientists are still assessing the risk that COVID-19 poses to bats in North America, but caving opens up the chance for human-to-bat transmission of the virus.
The U.S. Geological Survey, researching potential effects of virus transmission to bats, has said that “sustained infections could develop in wildlife populations that would harm wildlife and/or create a wildlife reservoir for the human pathogen."
While Executive Order 61, which launched Phase 1, eases restrictions on campgrounds and other businesses, social distancing guidelines remain in place for Virginia, as does the limit on gatherings of more than 10.
Caves, by their nature, have poor ventilation and tight, enclosed spaces that the Virginia Cave Board says make compliance with those guidelines extremely difficult among any caving team members.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that COVID-19 is readily transmitted by airborne particles from an infected person who coughs, sneezes or even talks while in close proximity," Cave Board Chair Daniel H. Doctor said. "Groups of people need not put themselves at risk in the enclosed space of a cave at this time."
The full statement of the Virginia Cave Board can be found here.
The Virginia Cave Board was established in 1979 to conserve and protect the state’s caves and karst landscapes, and to advocate for the wise use of cave-related resources. Its members are appointed by the governor. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation provides staff support to the board through its Division of Natural Heritage.
For the most up-to-date information regarding closures and available recreational opportunities in Virginia, you can check here.