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‘Tree Time’ aims for positive season as COVID-19 impacts operations

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PRINCE GEORGE – Among the lush green foliage of Scott Park, Tree Time Adventures owner John Bogue walks the park’s trails and makes preparations for the upcoming spring and summer season as his park stands empty, forced to close as the state tries to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Tree Time Adventures and many other amusement and recreation facilities across the Commonwealth were ordered to close their doors to the public by Governor Ralph Northam in late March as part of a sweeping executive order that banned nonessential gatherings of ten or more people, ended the academic year for millions of Virginia students, and closed dining rooms in restaurants across the state.

Nearly two months on from Northam’s order, efforts to reopen some aspects of Virginia’s economy are underway through his administration’s “Forward Virginia” initiative, a multi-phased approach to allow businesses to reopen with strict social distancing, cleaning, and other health-related measures in place to continue to “flatten the curve” of new cases of COVID-19.

As the governor shared his objectives for reopening businesses in the state, Bogue, the owner of multiple businesses in the state, talked about how the forced closure has affected Tree Time, which is set to celebrate a year of operating in Prince George in a few short months.

“It has been painful for us,” he revealed. “We have been shut down but we have had no problem accommodating the public in a safe manner from the beginning. It is unfortunate because the leadership hasn’t taken the time to look at every business individually to see how they could go about keeping people safe.”

While Tree Time Adventures is known for its elevated tree-based experiences, walking trails crisscross the over 100-acre footprint of their park. For Bogue, from the ground-level trails to its tree-based adventures, he said safety is at the forefront of their operations, even before COVID-19’s arrival to the Commonwealth.

“I built the park the same way that I care for my family. Safety has always been my number one priority,” he remarked. “From the very beginning when you book a visit with Tree Time, the entire transaction can be done from the convenience of your home computer, smartphone, or tablet. You can pay for and book your visits and review and sign the waiver all from home. It doesn’t require you to set foot in our office space.”

According to Bogue, gear is now being applied outside as opposed to their gear house and visitors are kept at a safe distance from the park guide as they demonstrate how to apply the harnesses used in the tree-based experiences. In addition, that gear is disinfected prior to and after use and taken out of rotation for several days out of an abundance of caution.

The park’s staff also have face masks and gloves if they should ever have to come in contact with visitors during their time at Tree Time Adventures.

“As far as the adventure goes, you are talking about a park that is 130 acres so, staying a safe distance from each other is not a problem,” Bogue explained. “As far as our jungle bridges and other areas, when you are navigating your way through the tree canopy, our bridges are anywhere from 25 to 80 feet long. We just simply require that there be no more than one person per bridge so you are talking about spacing that is anywhere from four to twenty times more than the six-foot requirement so social distancing is not an issue.”

“We are perfectly capable of serving the public and keeping them safe,” he stressed. “The upcoming season is going to be a good one and I think people need to get outside and be outdoors. It is a proven fact that exercise and fresh air is something that is good for our mental health and I think right now, a lot of people are struggling in that area.”

Bogue was candid as he talked about the effects COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions have had on his business, noting that all of his ventures have been affected in some way by the virus or ensuing regulations.

“It has been extremely hard,” he revealed. “I own four different businesses and they all have been shut down so needless to say, you can dig a pretty big hole pretty quickly so I am extremely sympathetic to the businesses that are suffering and the people who have been out of work, those people who were already struggling, working paycheck to paycheck, to have their income stop so abruptly, that’s rough.”

He echoed the sentiments of some business owners in Virginia and across the country where the restrictions were put in place forcing their business to close while others are deemed “essential” and allowed to keep operating, even when a business dubbed “nonessential” could potentially be effectively operated while adhering to social distancing and capacity limits.

“I see the need to respond as a government to try to protect the public but I think it is going to be important in the future to make sure when we are implementing guidelines and rules for essential and nonessential businesses that it is fair across the board,” Bogue remarked. “I certainly don’t it is right to selectively decide ‘Okay, you get to be open but you have to close.’”

Those questions have made their way to Richmond and have been a conversation lawmakers have had in regards to the state’s response to COVID-19. Speaking with The Prince George Journal this month, longtime Virginia State Senator Frank Ruff (R-15) stressed, while he “[had] no intention of second-guessing any decisions that were made in March” by the governor and his administration, he believed the definitions of an “essential business” is “somewhat elastic.”

“Our ABC stores with multiple customers coming and going are considered essential while a state park that allows one to get outside to breathe fresh air is not. Stores that carry a wide assortment of merchandise, including clothing, are considered essential while stores that specialize in clothing were not,” Ruff detailed.

State parks are open for “day use only,” according to the governor’s office but, as part of the first phase of Northam’s “Forward Virginia” business reopening initiative, those parks will begin offering overnight stays “in phases.”

In addition, the first phase would leave most fitness and exercise venues closed, save those who can offer outdoor fitness classes and “entertainment and public amusement facilities” would stay closed. According to Northam, this phase would remain in place for at least 2-3 weeks, largely dependent on COVID-19 health data.

“You talk about essential businesses, every business is essential. It is essential when that is your livelihood and how you care for your family, whether you are the employer or the employee,” he said. “If we are going to have shutdowns or mandates on safety, then I think that is something that should be done across the board.”

Bogue continued, “There is a natural cleansing process that takes place out here in the wilderness because it’s that time of year where we are getting rain every couple of days so we are constantly getting washed down,” he said. “We also sell gloves and other items and if our visitors have their own gloves, they can bring their own and there, again, is an additional layer of safety.”

While it remains uncertain what the future holds for Tree Time Adventures in terms of a specific public reopening day, the park’s owner said they are still preparing for a big year. After receiving approval from the county board of supervisors to modify its operating hours, Bogue said the park will begin offering nighttime activities, with electricity being set up to illuminate the park and its trails.

“It is going to be beautiful and it is going to give people an awesome opportunity to come out and not only enjoy the excitement of the nighttime adventure but also beat the heat when we do have those 100-degree summer days,” he described. “That will make it a lot more enjoyable for those people who want to come out and have some fun but not have to deal with the intensity of a hot July day.”

Along with the possibility of camping coming to Tree Time Adventures, he said the modified hours will allow for seasonal activities, ranging from haunted forest attractions during Halloween and a lighted Christmas maze around December, featuring Santa Claus, fire pits, and warm drinks for attendees.

Other leisure activities, such as cornhole are on tap for the park, as well.

“There are a lot of exciting things on tap here and our plan is to continue to reinvest in Tree Time,” Bogue shared. “We just would like to have the support of the community and get people out here. When you are out here enjoying yourselves, the revenue being generated is going back into the park.”

According to Bogue, they have yet to set their rates for the coming year but, they plan to offer a reduced price, understanding the economic hardships many are facing during this time.

“We haven’t priced ourselves for the 2020 season but, my plans are to offer some reduced pricing. We will absorb some of the costs just because I know some people are having a hard time financially, so people can expect a reduced ticket price until things start picking up again,” he closed.

To learn more about Tree Time Adventures, visit their website at http://treetimeadventures.com.