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OCEAN COUNTY Parks and natural lands will be closed to the public starting at 6 p.m. today (March 31) until further notice due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

“With President Trump extending the social distancing mandate for the country until the end of April and with New Jersey Gov. Murphy strongly emphasizing that social distancing and staying home is not just a suggestion but a mandate for New Jersey, along with our health experts, it’s important we take this step to further protect our citizens from the spread of the coronavirus,” said Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines, chairwoman of the Ocean County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust. “We have to take this seriously.

“We had started to close some parks to the public last week in an effort to curtail large gatherings and because of a lack of social distancing,” Haines said. “Because the power of social distancing cannot be stressed enough we are taking this next step and shutting down all of our parks and natural land sites to the public.”

Ocean County had already shut down its two golf courses, public playgrounds, playing fields, and nature centers to the public.

Ocean County maintains and operates 27 parks across the county including such popular locations as Jakes Branch County Park, Beachwood, John C. Bartlett Jr. County Park at Berkeley Island, Wells Mills County Park, Waretown, Ocean County Park, Lakewood, Cattus Island County Park, Toms River, and the Barnegat Branch Trail which travels from Barnegat Township north through Berkeley Township.

“With more than 4,000 acres of county parkland and 30,000 acres of natural lands, we cannot police everyone who does not want to change their behavior during this very turbulent time,” Haines said. “Closing down our open spaces will, I hope, result in people staying home unless they are essential workers or need to get to a food store, drug store or health care provider.”

“We have to break the back of this virus and we have to reduce the curve,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari. “I’m asking all of our citizens to please listen to the President, listen to the Governor, listen to the health experts and just stay home at this time.

“I know this is difficult, we are social creatures, and there are also many essential workers that still need to get to work,” Vicari said. “And for the most part, people are doing what they are being asked to do, but until we get this virus under control, please, unless you are essential to your job, stay home. Your actions don’t affect just you, they affect your family, they affect our health care workers, they affect our emergency responders, they affect the workers at our grocery stores.”

Ocean County has more than 950 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

“With a steady increase in cases in Ocean County, we need to keep people out of areas where they can congregate,” Haines said. “If we all do our part we can help all 600,000 residents of Ocean County get through this outbreak safely.”

Signs will be posted at all Ocean County Parks announcing the closure. And entrance gates will be locked.

The Ocean County Sheriff’s Office and Ocean County Security Department will continue to patrol the county parks during the closure.